When Pixar first started releasing feature-length films, the result was a string of masterpieces unlike most studios have ever seen. Yet in the last decade, Pixar started to falter, releasing films like Cars 2, Brave, and The Good Dinosaur that didn’t have the spark that their original films had. The occasional Inside Out or Toy Story sequel would bring back the imagination and wonder that once made the studio great, but with an abundance of sequels and less-than-stellar original ideas, it’s easy to say that over the last decade, Pixar has lost some of its magic.
After last year’s Toy Story 4, Pixar has stated they have no current plans to make any sequels, and their first original film since that statement is Onward, set in a fantasy world that has literally lost most of its magic. Unicorns eat out of overturned trash cans, pixies drive motorcycles instead of flying, and the spells of the past have been replaced with technology. But Onward is also Pixar’s first attempt to show that there is still magic in this company and their original properties since their move away from sequels. While the heart that we’ve come to expect from all Pixar films is still there in Onward, Pixar’s twenty-second film is unfortunately closer to The Good Dinosaur and Brave than Inside Out and Coco.
In Onward, Tom Holland is Ian Lightfoot, a nervous teenager elf who is worried about typical problems like fitting in with other students and taking his driver’s test. On his sixteenth birthday, Ian’s mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives Ian and Ian’s fantasy-obsessed brother Barley (Chris Pratt) a gift from their deceased father. Barley only has a few memories of his father, and Ian wasn’t born before his father passed. The gift is a staff that will give them the opportunity to spend 24 hours with their father. The spell works, but only brings back the Lightfoot father’s legs and nothing more. With the clock ticking, Ian and Barley go on a quest to find the stone that will bring back the other half of their father.
The suburban fantasy world of New Mushroomtown should be full of memorable opportunities, but lacks the life and ingenuity of past Pixar worlds. This magic-meets-modernity world is largely wasted, an unremarkable mishmash that doesn’t build an inventive world with its concept. A fantasy creature created near the end of the film formed largely out of parts of buildings and cars is the one notable exception, but more often than not, the world is full of uninspired ideas like centaur police officers and buying a mythical sword from a pawn shop.
Director Dan Scalon also directed Monsters University, another Pixar film that felt like a lazy, generic plan stretched into a feature-length film. Co-written by Scanlon, with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, Onward falls back on the classic Pixar trope of a mismatched pair going on an adventure together. Onward comes right out and states the dynamic between Ian and Barley, as Ian is scared of everything and Barley isn’t afraid of anything. Holland is decent as Ian, but Pratt as Barley, who frequently dons a booming dungeon master voice, comes dangerous close to becoming one of Pixar’s most obnoxious characters. The second half thankfully moves past Barley’s broad comedic tone and into a more emotional direction, but that first half is rough.
Onward also features a secondary plot that goes absolutely nowhere, as Laurel tries to find her sons with the help of Corey (Octavia Spencer), a once great manticore who now runs a themed restaurant, and Laurel’s police officer boyfriend, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez). These dynamics aren’t fleshed out or interesting enough to warrant their inclusion, and considering how strong Pixar’s secondary characters usually are, this thread is a waste of some solid comedic actors.
But as is the case with most Pixar films, the core of what makes this film work is the emotional center. When Onward focuses on the importance of the brother dynamic and the brothers who miss their father, the film really works, even if Ian and Barley’s father is nothing but a pair of khaki pants using the same Pixar technology that they utilized in their short, Lou.
As a concept and in its execution, Onward is more humdrum and stale than one would expect from Pixar. Even from a lesser studio, this would seem like a tedious idea, but even the worst Pixar films are better than most other animation studio films. Onward might be the least visually impressive Pixar film, and the world might not have, well, enough magic that one would expect from the studio. But the Pixar heart is there, and that makes up for a lot.