Whether I’m in the minority or not is probably irrelevant. Personally, I strongly believe that, save for one exception, Pixar’s output over the past decade following the release of the still-mighty, Should-Have-Been-The-Final-Bow Toy Story 3 has been, for lack of a better phrase, dismal at best. With a list ripe in unnecessary sequels and original ideas that could easily be described as uninspired, there’s no denying the once-raging flame that initially elevated such a legendary studio far above much of the late ‘90s/early ‘00s post-Renaissance era at parent studio Disney had begun to rapidly flicker.
This, sadly, came about even in the wake of such efforts as 2017’s remarkable Coco, truly that one exception which served to showcase Pixar’s potential to still occasionally produce films with that well-balanced mix of emotion, humor, brilliant storytelling and flawless animation audiences had initially come to expect with every release. With Onward, their latest attempt at recapturing that somewhat forgotten early magic, it’s formulaic at best and disappointingly dull at its worst.
Going into Onward with even the most basic knowledge of those involved behind the scenes doesn’t exactly evoke a strong feeling of confidence. This is particularly strong when one factors in the appointment of director Dan Scanlon to the helm. Scanlon, best known for a string of direct-to-video Disney sequels and even a mediocre Pixar follow-up (2013’s Monsters University) is probably a questionable choice, especially when initial trailers seemed to present a story set within a world that appeared similar to something if Frozen awkwardly mated with David Ayer’s 2017 Netflix dud Bright. The latter’s Buddy-Cops-Set-Within-A-Modern-Day-World-Occupied-By-Mystical-Creatures premise appears to have been adapted to a degree for Onward, with Avengers veterans Tom Holland and Chris Pratt voicing the Lightfoots, two elf brothers living in a world populated by unicorns, centaurs, pixies and the like.
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In this fantasy realm, the very real presence of magic has been replaced by technological advancements that have transformed society into something very much akin to modern day suburbia. When the shy, reserved Ian (Holland) is bequeathed a staff and magical gem for his 16th birthday, along with a spell meant to resurrect a deceased individual for a mere 24-hour period of time, he enlists his brother Barley (Pratt), a passionate fan of anything one might find within the confines of an RPG or the magical history of their world, to utilize the spell in an effort to bring back their late father, neither of whom knew him well but both having held him in high regard for the majority of their lives.
However, when casting the spell goes horribly wrong midway through the process, succeeding only in the destruction of the gem as well as solely materializing their father’s legs and feet, it’s up to the brothers to find a replacement gem in the spirit of any classic road comedy or some sort of animated Weekend at Bernie’s.
Strip away the fantastical exterior and all you’re left with is a supremely average story, one which fortunately is buoyed by the decent chemistry and voice acting of both Holland & Pratt. Though neither appear to have differentiated their respective characters from much of their previous work – Ian could easily be mistaken for Peter Parker, while Barley’s synthesis of Star-Lord and Andy Dwyer reeks of an “If It Ain’t Broke” mentality.
The two play off each other well, and overall are as inoffensive a pair of animated characters as one’s likely to find within the confines of Pixar’s sleek, shiny walls. Sadly, these run-of-the-mill characterizations represent the peak of cast member quality, as Julia Louis-Dreyfus portrays the boys’ mother with a somewhat-explored recurring plotline involving her home workout routine that finds a unique resolution during Onward’s third act, in addition to her pairing with Octavia Spencer as a Manticore who teams up to track down the brothers following a sequence at the Chuck E. Cheese-esque restaurant run by Spencer which figures somewhat heavily into the film’s progress. There’s also the boyfriend of the boys’ mother, a cop/centaur who sometimes has things to do. I still have no idea what a Manticore is.
Tragically, these failings signify Onward’s biggest issue: the inability to properly utilize the setting and potential offered by the world within the film to create some genuinely exceptional moments befitting of such a mythological environment. Much like Disney’s own 2016 smash Zootopia, which suffered a similar fate, Onward similarly stumbles, and doesn’t even seem to try to take full advantage of the opportunity to showcase what a world of myth and legend set within the year 2020 would feel like. Take away the few scenes of the creatures mentioned above and this is just another movie where a handful of uninteresting things occur that, while most do reach a conclusion at some point or another, isn’t able to consistently stay engaging and is more likely to produce yawns than, say, polite chuckles.
Even a few scattershot moments of action and a genuinely exciting ending aren’t enough to save Onward from the bottom of Walmart’s bargain bin, nor are the trademark attempts to pull at the heartstrings. It’s also disappointing to note that little effort is made to touch on why the personalities of the brothers are the way that they are. It should also be mentioned that the greater story involves a curse surrounding anyone who steals the all-important gem, another example of something that I believe may have been explained in-depth at one point but I think occurred when I was too busy studying my water bottle for imperfections. That endeavor, believe me, captivated my attention far more than most of whatever was happening onscreen.
Realistically, I’m probably being too harsh. The animation, while nothing special whatsoever, flows nicely and looks acceptable. No one involved from the cast, writers or any random part of the crew appear to have given anything less than 75-80% of effort in a perfect illustration of a team simply doing their job, never once rising above and beyond the basic call of duty to craft something truly memorable. I’d never say Onward is a bad movie, nor do I expect Pixar to ever fully recapture their former glory years after such days have passed. But I can also utter with supreme confidence that the only magic I witnessed is how exactly a movie such as this is so quickly forgotten by the time I left a darkened theater one breezy, warm March weeknight.
What did I see again?