Pixar’s new film Onward is a strange artifact. It’s not because Onward is full of elves and dragons and other assorted mythical creatures. It’s a Pixar movie, but it’s a Pixar movie that feels like someone else doing their best Pixar impression. Maybe that says more about the animation juggernaut’s brand than this particular movie, but it’s hard not to expect more. Perhaps that makes this Onward review unfair to what’s a perfectly serviceable film, but serviceable is all it is.
Earnest and cute and well-meaning, Onward is fun and nice and fine. Just fine. Younger audiences will adore it because there’s adventure and adorable creatures and a fantastical world. But it also plays hollow and saccharine, full of paint-by-numbers emotional manipulation and artificially manufactured conflict.
In Onward the world has become less magical. What was once an epic deep fantasy realm full of wizards and quests and wonder, has given way to bland suburbia. See, magic is hard, so people turned to technology for an easier path. Not choosing the easiest path simply because it’s easy is a running theme throughout, as is the movie’s anti-technology undercurrent. There’s a gleam of potential in this setup, along with interesting ideas, but a gleam is all there is in a film never fully develops or delivers on its promise.
In Onward’s once wondrous world, we have two elf brothers: Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) and his older sibling, Barley (Chris Pratt). On Ian’s 16th birthday, he receives a present from his father, who died before he was born. It’s a wizard’s staff and a spell to bring dad back from the grave for a single day. Only the spell doesn’t work right the first time and all they manage to conjure up is dad’s pants. So, as the clock ticks, they load up and embark on a quest to finish the spell, see their pops, and maybe discover magic isn’t so far removed from daily life as they thought.
Holland and Pratt both have charm chemistry together in Onward, though neither stretches in any real fashion. Ian is socially awkward and uncomfortable, playing a bit like an exaggerated caricature of Holland’s Peter Parker. For Barley, this represents his nerdy wish-fulfillment dreams come true. He’s a hesher with an airbrushed van and sleeveless denim vest covered in patches of heavy metal band logos. He’s also deep into a D&D-style role-playing game and where better to use all your intricate, arcane knowledge that’s generally irrelevant in the real world than on an epic quest?
The first two-thirds of Onward follows the brothers on their journey, from one complication to the next. With their dad-pants in tow, they Weekend at Bernie’s their way across the map and… it’s fine.
For a tale of magic and wonder, there’s little of either. Strife between the brothers plays contrived. Conflict arises at the most obvious moments in the most obvious ways. While the story hits all the right beats and touches, it does so in the least interesting way.
Writer/director Dan Scanlon’s script, working with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, is coincidental, overly convenient, and inconsistent. Early on, Ian meets a man voiced by Wilmer Valderrama, who just so happened to know his dad, and exists solely to bum Ian out a bit more on his birthday.
Plot points in Onward work one way, until that becomes narratively troublesome. Then the rules change. Their mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) has a new beau, a centaur cop named Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez). Only that’s not clear until the middle of the film. Early on, we think Colt is just police officer hassling the ne’er-do-well Barley.
Even the timeline doesn’t match up. Onward establishes a world where magic was something that existed long ago. Now generations have passed and it’s barely a blip in the collective consciousness. But not in every case. Take The Manticore (Octavia Spencer) for example. She was once a ferocious adventurer, elbows deep in that magical lifestyle, but now she runs a cheesy theme restaurant. The film waffles back and forth like this, unsure if magic was some ancient thing or a relatively recent memory.
When Onward reaches its final act, things smooth out. The emotional beats are still generic, but they land with a solid oomph. With a final goal in sight, the pace kicks up to a swift clip. By the time the brothers ride a giant cheese puff down a subterranean river, the main woes are behind them and us, so we head toward an exciting, relatively satisfying climax.
Even with a jumbled timeline, inconsistencies, and a super tidy ending, Onward offers harmless fun and a perfectly benign fantasy adventure. Still, at its best, this is a minor entry into the Pixar canon.
With the impending release of Soul in June, Onward almost feels like an afterthought. It’s not like the studio is burying this film, but it does feel like their primary focus lies elsewhere. Though enjoyable enough in the moment, Onward isn’t an animated movie we’ll be talking about years or even months from now.