In the 25 years since Toy Story first hit theaters, the amount of unfavorable films to come out of Pixar versus the number of instant classics can probably be counted on a single hand. That is an insane and unprecedented track record for any studio, and frankly even their worst films are still infinitely better than the average piece of dreck to come out of, say, Illumination Entertainment. That being said, while Onward does not belong on the aforementioned single hand, it doesn’t quite hit the heights of Wall-E, Up, Inside Out, or Coco either. Don’t get me wrong, Onward is a perfectly fine movie — a good movie. It’s also just quite middle-of-the-road compared to Pixar’s usual quality for two-thirds of it.
The film is set in a modern-day fantasy world populated by pixies, wizards, dragons, and elves. Where magic once flourished, the birth of technology rendered it obsolete, and so the universe evolved into a world of smartphones, gas-powered cars, and typical high school woes, as magic quickly became forgotten. One day, two teenage elf brothers discover a note left behind by their deceased father, who they never grew up with, containing a spell that could bring him back for a single day. And so the brothers set out onward, in search of the elements that will help them complete the spell, and allow them to see their father one last time.
The screening I was invited to featured an introduction from director Dan Scanlon (Monster’s University), who discussed how the movie was inspired by both the relationship with him and his older brother and the death of their father. The passion and personal weight of each word uttered during that introduction can easily be felt in the true emotional heart of the movie. That is, perhaps, Onward‘s greatest strength. This is a personal, sweet-natured movie about familial love and the importance of appreciating who you have in life over what you’ve lost. That’s a great message and it is fantastically conveyed via moments that, in the grand tradition of Pixar movies, make you weep a tear or two (or fifty-thousand if you’re me).
The movie’s next biggest weapon are its stars. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt are perfectly cast as Ian and Barley Lightfoot, and the chemistry between their two characters is some of the best buddy-work in the entire Pixar canon, which is saying something given the studio’s reputation for buddy pictures. They truly bring their well-developed characters to life. Holland’s Ian has a geeky, every-man charm that makes you want to just hug him because you know he’s stronger, smarter, and bolder than his character gives himself credit for. Pratt’s Barley is the lovable loser goofball who is both fearless and completely big-hearted. He can be a complete idiot one moment, and a completely sympathetic sweetheart the next (a Pratt-signature move). The rule, as with all Pixar movies, is that the two opposites need to balance each other out, and that couldn’t be more true than in this film. Pratt and Holland bounce off each other, and the audience is completely taken by these characters because of it. The relationship between the two characters is not perfect, but it’s real, and grounded in true brotherly love. And Holland and Pratt get you to invest in that relationship from the beginning of the movie to the final frame.
The movie also gets you emotionally invested in the relationship between the Lightfoot brothers and their father — not an easy task to do when their father is essentially a pair of legs. Pixar’s animation team, however, can give personality and feelings to a lamp, a unicycle, and a bao, so frankly this shouldn’t come as a surprise. That being said, the motivations for Ian and Barley going on their quest are rooted in completely real, completely understandable reasons, and what they do get with their father’s legs, may not be much, but it’s palpable enough to bring a smile to your face anyway.
Now granted, these elements — the emotional themes and the characters/acting — are fully enough to carry Onward up from a relatively bland movie to a genuinely good one. And by the end of the movie, you’re satisfied with what you’ve seen because those elements resonate so much with you. Unfortunately, in a “what/if” movie about a suburban fantasy world, you’d think they could do better than a buddy road trip to search for a MacGuffin. And that is the film’s biggest weakness.
For a large part of the movie, everything feels so… typical. And that is surprising for a Pixar movie, given their reputation for going against the safe choice to make brilliant, inventive films. The boys take a van, have car trouble, run into tough bikers, cops chase them down, they have some pretty big heart-to-hearts along the way. And that’s just very par for the course on most buddy comedies, making two-thirds of the movie formulaic and meandering. Though this might be a formula Pixar hasn’t specifically done before, for the rest of us, it’s a case of been-there-done-that. And it becomes a real shame given the potential to get crazier with this film and its concept (not to mention creating a character with a disembodied pair of legs).
You built a world of magic and mythical creatures, and the most you can get them to do is drive, go to restaurants for karaoke, and do the ordinary mundane things we do every day? I realize that sense of irony is the point, but it also makes the movie less interesting. Why go to a Pixar movie about elves taking selfies (elf-ies?), when I can go on Instagram to watch some rando take a selfie with the same effect? And all of this is because Scanlon falls into the same habit he fell into making Monster’s University, which is that he’s taken a long, existing subgenre and simply just added CG characters to it. If Monster’s U was Animal House, then Onward is essentially Harold and Kumar. But we know Pixar is capable of more than that.
All this would be forgivable if the movie’s comedy was stronger. But unfortunately the best laughs are pretty few and far between. We get a good amount from Octavia Spencer’s Manticore character, and some from Pratt’s character, but ultimately most of them don’t land the way most Pixar-grade humor should; another example of where the film plays it safe again. Instead of cleverness, the film’s humor settles for easy and a little cheap. Barley is nutbag goofball who spouts over-the-top D&D phrases. The pixies are a tough biker gang that you don’t want to mess with. This centaur is a cop who likes coffee and donuts. Dragons and unicorns are like puppy dogs. We get it. That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have its moments, but the ratio of predictable jokes to good ones is relatively high.
That being said, while the above elements could have been so much better, and are a bit disappointing, the movie picks up a lot more during the last third. This is where the heart and the aforementioned emotional themes present themselves. There are scenes that reveal a lot more about Barley than we had otherwise heard, and scenes that give strong closure to the dilemmas that plagued Ian and Barley for most of the movie. It goes from typical to the signature Pixar clever quirkiness and heart that we’ve come to expect, and therefore it ends reasonably strong.
The other thing I’ll give the movie credit for, and it’s definitely a relatively risky move for Pixar, is that they for once, included a character that was openly gay. While the scene and role of the character are relatively short, it’s refreshing to see that Pixar managed to pull that off within the film, and have such a character voiced by such a prolific LGBTQ actor. Good going with that one, guys!
All in all, Onward is still a heartfelt, well acted film that is worth your time because it contains the emotion and charm of your average Pixar movie… just not consistently through the full film. It isn’t as fully daring or original as other offerings from the studio, but it’s not bad, and features well written characters and themes. I think the magical elements and D&D tributes will also play pretty well with fans of the fantasy genre. Just don’t expect such things to take center stage in a movie that plays things relatively safe, when it has every opportunity and potential to push things, well, onward.
Overall Score: B
Onward hits theaters March 6, 2020.