Pixar has successfully explored fantasy worlds over and over. From Monstropolis to Paradise Falls to the inner mind of a young girl, they’ve managed to move audiences to tears in the most unexpected ways while exploring high-concept worlds that test the limits of our imaginations. Even in deeply realistic worlds such as the kitchen of a Michelin star restaurant in Paris or a young boy’s bedroom in suburbia, they insert fantasy to explore the most human of emotions. It’s almost surprising that it took them so long to finally play around with medieval fantasy ideas and creatures, but here comes Onward at long last to finally join the ranks of the imaginary worlds that have come before it. Imagine how disappointing it was to discover how bland the final result was.
In a modernized world populated by fantastical creatures where magic has become a mere myth, young elf Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) is just turning 16 years old. He lives with his mother Laurel (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and his older brother Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt). Conspicuously absent is their father Wilden (voiced by Kyle Bornheimer), who died of cancer before Ian was born and before Barley could develop an abundance of memories about him. Laurel gives the boys a gift from their father that was prearranged before his death. It turns out to be a wizard’s staff with a spell attached, meant to bring him back to life for one full day. Egged-on by Barley, a fanatical RPG player who believes that magic is real, Ian uses the staff to bring their father back—only for the spell to backfire and leave them with a pair of legs. With only 24 hours on the clock, the boys go on a quest to finish the spell and bring their father back to spend one last day with him.
Onward is charming, to be sure, but the film suffers from severe flaws. The biggest sticking point is that the world doesn’t feel fully realized. Previous Pixar worlds felt fully fleshed out, while Onward feels like a fuzzy sketch done with broken crayons. A mermaid in a kiddie swimming pool on the lawn is funny, but we’ve come to expect better from this studio. The shagginess of the world’s inner logic feeds into the script, and that’s the big problem. It just feels so routine. You can tell when the director is going to make you cry and extract as many tears as possible out of your body. Pixar has been making us weep to diminishing returns recently, but Onward is proof that the magic has run out. The film feels utterly average in every way possible, from the character designs to the storytelling to the vocal performances (only Octavia Spencer, as a former fierce manticore turned tourist-trap restaurant manager, works due to her inspired voice work and fun attitude).
It’s almost worrying. What happened, Pixar? In the past five years, they’ve released four sequels of varying quality and three original films, with one of them failing to make any impact. The only film of theirs from recent years that has really stuck with audiences is Coco, which looks more and more like the last shining example of high quality original work from the studio. Onward resembles a product from Pixar’s owner, Disney, or even worse, a product from DreamWorks. Despite being set in a world of magic, Onward might be proof that Pixar has lost what made them special.
21, born and raised in Boston. Mamma Mia wine mom personality. Jerry Gogosian of the film world.