By virtue of unfortunate comparison to Pixar’s impeccable back catalogue of masterpieces, every new film from the studio faces a dauntingly high bar to clear. Last year, Toy Story 4 somehow managed to defy all expectations and walk off with the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in the process. Sadly, Pixar’s first of two films this year can’t quite meet the dazzling pedigree of many of its contemporaries.
While it’s naturally wonderful to see Pixar return to fully original storytelling for the first time in three years, the fantastical Onward ironically lacks the true magic we’ve come to expect from a studio known for crafting unique tales. All the familiar ingredients are here. But, somehow, the end result is somewhat subpar. When your films continually change the game, those that don’t will always feel relatively disappointing.
That’s not to suggest Onward is a “bad” film. Far from it. With its enormously entertaining and wildly endearing narrative, it still delivers plenty of fun and more than a few tears. But the film ultimately fails to fully take advantage of its promising premise, leaving us with a predictable and formulaic piece of cinema that simply isn’t up to the standard of Pixar’s best.
We begin with a prologue of a time long ago when “the world was filled with wonder.” Wizards and their magic ruled this mythical land of elves, mermaids, centaurs, trolls, unicorns, and all manner of other creatures. But such skills were tricky to master, requiring training, persistence, and hard work. As technological advances made life easier, magic eventually faded from memory.
In present-day New Mushroomton, a quaint suburban town dominated by toad-stool residences, the adorkable and painfully shy elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is turning 16 and finally “becoming a man.” Meanwhile, his older bombastic brother Barley (Chris Pratt) is busy spending a seemingly neverending gap year obsessively playing Quests of Yore; a Dungeons and Dragons style game that he believes is actually based on the true history of magic.
Much to the chagrin of their doting mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Barley is constantly protesting against developers destroying the town’s historical remnants in the name of modernisation. Putting him at odds with the town’s local law enforcement, including Laurel’s centaur police officer boyfriend, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez). Ian and Barley’s father, Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer) tragically died before Ian was born, but he did bequeath a mysterious gift for his boys to open upon Ian’s 16th birthday.
As it turns out, Wilden was once a wizard, leaving behind his magical wizard staff, a phoenix gem, and a spell that will bring him back to life for just one day. Without the proper training and skill, Ian loses control of the spell, causing it to backfire halfway through, thus conjuring his father as nothing more than a sentient pair of legs. With time running out, Ian and Barley set off on a journey to locate another rare phoenix gem to complete the spell before their chance to see their father again slips away.
Based on its plot summary, you’re likely assuming this is another Pixar adventure rooted in parental themes, particularly given co-writer/director Dan Scanlon lost his father when he was a year old. When you learn this, it’s clear Onward is a deeply personal piece for Scanlon, who undoubtedly infuses his own experiences of growing up without a father. One scene where Ian conducts an imaginary conversation with a cassette tape recording of Wilden’s voice is particularly touching, tapping into the pain of a child whose only knowledge of his father exists through any shreds of information he can cobble together.
It’s Ian’s yearning to know his father that drives the entire narrative. Particularly with the clock running out to complete the spell and, more importantly, for Ian to tick off his list of activities he longs to complete with his father. But the true crux of the narrative is rooted deeper in the notion of brotherhood and Ian’s poignant realisation of Barley’s paternal role in his life, that will likely strike a chord for those audience members with a brother of their own.
The quest ultimately brings the brothers closer together, revealing their hidden strengths and crushing weaknesses in an equal manner. As Laurel so keenly points out, Ian is afraid of everything while Barely is scared of nothing, positioning the brothers as the classic mismatched duo out on a daring road trip adventure that naturally also plays as Ian’s coming-of-age tale. Conflict naturally ensues, as the brothers bumblingly attempt to work together despite their mammoth differences on how to complete their quest.
It’s here where the screenplay by Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin feels disappointingly derivative, offering very little originality to other examples of coming-of-age films of the past. Ian is the typical anxiety-prone teenager, deathly afraid to take any risk that isn’t entirely calculated and analysed first. Barley is the archetypal hot-head who’ll leap into any danger without thinking first. For a studio so known for crafting wildly original characters, Ian and Barely both feel painfully familiar.
However, as all good Pixar films do, Onward pulls out all the emotional stops for a rousing finale that will likely leave you in a puddle of tears, especially those audiences members who have lost a parent. After somewhat lagging in its occasionally dull middle section, it’s also in the third act where the narrative truly comes to life, as Ian and Barley finally face off against the film’s menacing villain; a dazzlingly crafted dragon constructed entirely of billowing red smoke and concrete rubble.
As expected, Onward is a gorgeously animated film, filled with all manner of elaborate landscapes and bizarre creatures. But with its magical plotline, this should have been something genuinely visually spectacular and it’s hard to say any moments here are all that particularly striking, especially when compared to the recent dazzling world-building work found in Coco and Toy Story 4. There are plenty of quirky mashups of modern reality with fantasy elements like booming skyscrapers which slightly resemble medieval castles. But, nothing that ever reaches the full potential this setting offered.
After initially flirting with the relevant thematic idea that magic, creativity, and personal connectivity are being lost by way of society’s reliance on modern technology, Onward frustratingly fails to fully explore the promise of this premise. Pixar have often proven to be a studio capable of tapping into themes pertinent to society and the opportunity to do the same here sadly goes begging. It almost feels like Scanlon had something to say but pulled back on truly going for it in favour of slapstick silliness and pedestrian sight gags.
What ultimately saves Onward from its narrative misgivings is the wonderful ensemble cast, led by Pratt and Holland who have terrific brotherly chemistry together. It’s hardly surprising to hear they’re both playing similar roles they’ve found themselves typecast in. But, they’re characters both performers do incredibly well. Pratt brings his typical manic brashness to Barley and Holland instils Ian with his usual dorky but lovable introvert charm. Their character journey is entertaining and heartwarming, even if it all feels a tad conventional.
The impeccable comedic stylings of Louis-Dreyfus are terribly underused but she instead manages to impart an endearing and protective motherly quality to Laurel that’s endlessly enchanting. Her side plot truly takes off when she teams up with Manticore (a scene-stealing Octavia Spencer), a winged dragon/lion/scorpion beast who sold out to the man and turned her ancient tavern into a gimmicky medieval family restaurant. With all the brazen sass and quick wit we’ve come to expect from Spencer, Manticore is the film’s most memorable character. Particularly when she finally gets her fire-breathing groove back and roars back to her former life.
In another example of Pixar’s determination to offer bold choices for their characters, it’s a huge challenge for Scanlon to attempt to craft a fully-fledged character from nothing but a set of legs. For the most part, it simply doesn’t work. Again, it’s a promising premise, full of daring opportunities, but Wilden’s legs mostly just happen to be there in each scene, without any real narrative intention. Occasionally, there are some delightful interactions between “father” and sons, particularly an engaging impromptu dance number. Sadly, these moments are few and far between.
Whether it’s homage or just lazy rip-off, Onward features a hefty helping of scenes reminiscent of films like Indiana Jones, The Goonies, and Lord of the Rings, often failing to truly find its own feet. Even the film’s occasionally hilarious physical humour involving Wilden’s garish set of legs feels painfully familiar to the comedy found in Weekend at Bernie’s. But your children have likely never seen these films, so it’s all fresh and new to them.
Despite its failure to take full advantage of its potential, Onward is still an entirely entertaining and enjoyable experience, elevated by a typically-Pixar tear-jerker of an ending. For those who know the pain of losing a parent, there’s no doubt this film will work on an entirely different level, echoing the personal sentiments of Scanlon’s writing and direction. This could have been something truly mind-blowing. Instead, it ultimately feels far too safe and ordinary; qualities rarely associated with the work of Pixar’s geniuses.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Onward opens for advance previews this weekend, before a full release on March 26.