Directed by Dan Scanlon
Starring Chris Pratt, Tom Holland, Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Almost 25 years since they released Toy Story and now on to their 22nd movie, Pixar has settled into a comfortable groove. And perhaps in an accidental way, the world the filmmakers portray in the studio’s latest animated feature Onward could be a metaphor for the state of the studio itself: It is a world populated by elves, centaurs and manticores who have lost touch with their magical natures, eschewing the hard work of casting spells and trading it for the conveniences of technology. (After all, why learn a spell for summoning light when you can flick a switch?)
And so, the theory goes, magic faded away. Yet you can see the magic all around you—elves live in suburban housing that resemble giant mushrooms, unicorns paw through garbage cans like stray cats, distant skyscrapers look like medieval castles. That feels like Pixar in a nutshell: The magic is still there, it’s just been muted by complacency.
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Onward begins with a trademark Pixar heart-tugger of a premise: Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is a rudderless adolescent who has been aching for the father who died before he was born. On Ian’s 16th birthday, his mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives him and his elder brother Barley (Chris Pratt) a wizard’s staff their sick father specifically bequeathed to them so that they could summon him back from the dead for one day only. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one—or is even forced to think of losing a loved one—will feel the water works turning on immediately.
It turns out that Ian has an untapped talent for harnessing magic, but it is so sorely underused that something goes wrong in the initial spell, and he is only able to summon his father’s bottom half. Fortunately for him, his brother Barley is a tattooed goof with an encyclopedic knowledge of magical lore and role-playing. Barley is a lovable goof where Ian is a querulous rationalist, and when Barley leads Ian on a quest to find a gem that will have the staff working again—Onward is only the gazillionth movie to employ a stone with mystical properties as a central plot point—the two brothers are forced to evaluate the dynamics of their relationship.
Onward is gentle, wholesome fun. Its pacing isn’t manic and doesn’t grate the way those Despicable Me movies with their nonsense-spouting Minions do. Its plotting is coherent—since it is structured as a quest, the script by director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), Jason Headley and Keith Bunin takes care to keep you abreast of milestones along the way—while consciously avoiding getting lost in its own mythology, the way Frozen 2 sometimes does. And of course, the climax pays off because of judiciously placed foreshadowing and meticulously constructed motivations. (Plus, no overwrought song numbers so…yay!)
And yet, it’s not hard to see that Onward follows a set-in-gemstone path. That generic storytelling is most evident in the brothers themselves: Barley and Ian are so broadly drawn in their differences—Barley in arrested development, Ian in cautious panic—that even with Chris Pratt’s energetic voice work, their half-summoned father and his legs can’t help but steal their scenes just by dint of being more subtle.
Underneath its much-lauded push for representation, 2017’s Coco took care to hit prescribed story beats. In fact, I would have to go back to 2015’s Inside Out to give an example of a Pixar movie that truly surprised me, because it literally dug deep into its characters instead of relying on tried-and-tested plot machinations to arrive at its emotional rewards. Onward is top-tier family entertainment, but mid-level Pixar; it doesn’t really point the way forward.
Photographs from Pixar