Cast: (voiced by) Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer
Director: Dan Scanlon
Writers: Dan Scanlon, Keith Bunin, Jason Headley
One of the problems of attaining as high a batting average as Pixar has in the 25 years since Toy Story first captured our imaginations is that when anything falls even a couple of inches short, it inevitably feels like a disappointment. Had this film been made by DreamWorks, I’d have deemed it to be on par for them. Had it been made by Illumination, I’d be hailing it as their single greatest achievement by a mile and a half. For a studio that has previously taken the world by storm with such emotional, profound and visually daring original films as Ratatouille, Up, and WALL-E however, Onward feels light and tame in comparison. This past decade for Pixar, one in which seven of their eleven releases resulted in sequels and prequels, has led to a prevailing sense that the animation giant is losing its creative edge. Of their four most recent original releases, Brave, Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, and Coco, two rank amongst the most moving and breathtaking films in all of American animation while the other two, having suffered turbulent productions, were mixed bags (I trust that I don’t need to clarify which films are which). The fact that Onward is to be the first of two original releases this year (barring global pandemics) would contest the idea that Pixar is losing faith in its original output were it not a film that played things so safely.
Onward certainly doesn’t feel like it’s a compromised version of the movie that Monsters University director Don Scanlon set out to make. There is a clarity to its vision, the world they’ve created is brimming with character and inventiveness, and the story feels wholly personal to those who wrote it. The problem isn’t with the movie’s execution but with its ambition; instead of shooting for the moon, it feels like Scanlon and his team were perfectly content to simply fly in its general direction. It’s a colourful and pleasant film with much to enjoy, but it isn’t much more than that. There’s nothing to match the delight of watching WALL-E and EVE dancing in space, the tragedy of the opening minutes of Up, or the profundity of Joy giving way to Sadness. This movie doesn’t take any bold risks, it doesn’t push the limits of what’s possible in its own reality, nor does it really go all that deep with its characterisation. Onward aspires to be nothing more and nothing less than a fun and pleasing family film and it is by all means a success; whatever flaws it might possess, this is a film that fundamentally works on its own terms. Because it bears the Pixar banner though, its successes cannot help but feel mild.
The story is that of brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot, two pointy-eared, purple-skinned elves living a suburban life with their mother. Their father died before Ian was born and both boys have been shaped by his absence and what scant few memories they have of the old man. Ian, a shy and awkward teen, has none of the confidence he’s been told his father had in spades and Barley, a burly layabout with an obsession for fantasy and role play, has none of his drive. On the day of his 16th birthday, Ian is gifted with a memento that the Dad had left for his sons before his death: a magical staff with a special crystal and a spell that’ll allow the boys to resurrect him for one day. You see, this is a realm where magic used to be the way of life. It was so difficult to master however that it eventually fell out of use in favour of such modern luxuries as electricity and automobiles. Barley, an avid player of Quests of Yore, this Dungeons & Dragons style game based on their real-life history, knows all about how magic is supposed to work and talks Ian into giving it a try. The spell goes awry however and only half of it is completed before the crystal is shattered. What’s left when all the smoke clears is half of the man that their father used to be (by which I mean his bottom half).
While Pixar films tend to be set in our own world, or at least that we can more or less recognise as our own, Onward takes its cue from WALL-E and Monsters Inc. by transporting us to a whole other realm. It is effectively our own world in that it’s set in a suburban town and inhabited by people who wear T-shirts and jeans and use mobile phones, but the houses they live in are these domesticated giant mushrooms and the townsfolk include centaurs, manticores and fairies. It’s like Bright, only with some actual imagination put into it and no ill conceived, heavy-handed attempts at an allegory for racism. They similarly stay well clear of Shrek territory by keeping brand and pop-culture references to an absolute minimum and by not playing any songs by Smash Mouth. The movie is comfortable keeping things light and playing around with slapstick, especially where the Dad’s legs are concerned, but the kinds of snarky, self-referential one-liners that typically typify these kinds of comical modern-fantasy kid’s movies are thankfully absent. The movie instead allows its world to simply present itself to the audience on its own terms; a world where elves, goblins and queer cyclopes (of which there is one by virtue of a throwaway line that will be cut for Russian and Chinese screenings) work mundane jobs, dragons are kept as pets, and wings are no longer used for flying. The world doesn’t feel as vast or as lived in as in previous Pixar titles, but it has its charms.
At times the characterisation of the world can be too broad to make it feel like a real, distinguishable place and the same goes for the characters. Ian and Barley are more archetypes than people, one as the spindly introvert who cannot bring himself to try anything because he’s afraid of his own shadow and the other as the extroverted, well-intentioned doofus who keeps screwing up. There are one or two reversals such as with Barley, who is made out to be a jock but instead turns out to be a hardcore fantasy nerd, and they’re likeable enough to carry the film but there isn’t enough specificity to their personalities for them to come into their own before the third act. When we reach that point and the overall themes of the film really start to take shape, we get a far better idea of who the brothers are supposed to be and what they’re supposed to mean to each other. While the groundwork for the emotional payoff they’re going for is established well enough for the conclusion to feel appropriate, it would have been more satisfying had the focal point been more pronounced throughout. A few too many callbacks have to be made in order to inspire the emotions we should have already been feeling and by the time we really start to get invested the movie has already reached its climax and is getting ready to wrap things up.
Still, for a straightforward fantasy family adventure, Onward delivers. Drawing much of its inspiration from such tabletop role-play games of the 1980s as D&D, the movie often feels like one of those campaigns in all of the right ways. Along their way to find a legendary gem to replace the one that was shattered, Ian and Barley must brave foes, improve their skills, solve puzzles, evade capture, collect items and, most importantly, learn to work together. There’s a lot to role-playing games that appeals to players and keeps them coming back; there’s the thirst for adventure, the feeling of progression, the immersive experience. More than that, it’s the sense of community. It’s about going on a journey with your friends and having a good time along the way. Onward understands this well. There’s a scene in the middle where Daddy Long Legs (sorry not sorry) feels the vibration of the music playing in the car and takes a moment to dance along and tap his sons in to join him. It’s a moment that captures what goofy fun these kinds of games can be if you’re prepared to just go along with whatever happens and not take anything too seriously. In the same way that The LEGO Movie gets a pass with some clichés and flaws because of how it all takes place in an eight-year-old’s imagination, so does Onward for how often it feels like a couple of teenagers playing a role-play board game with each other.
This can however be a fault where stakes are concerned. We get that there’s a personal weight to this adventure, namely that Ian and Barley need to find the crystal and complete the spell before sunset or else they’ll lose their one chance to spend some time with their father. For what is supposed to at least evoke, if not outright be, an epic quest, the pair face few obstacles along the way. Even the big boss they battle at the end feels more like an inconvenience than it does an antagonist. With the exception of one scene that draws a bit from the leap of faith scene in The Last Crusade (there is a lot of Spielberg in this movie), it rarely feels like the characters are ever in any genuine danger. This is more likely a feature than a bug considering that the film is set in suburbia and all the boys are really trying to do is drive their van up a hill in search of treasure, but it still feels like the stakes are lower than they should be. In Inside Out, all Joy wanted to do was get back to headquarters to make Riley happy again, but the journey there was such an urgent and emotional one because we cared so deeply about her and the other characters (Bing Bong, my heart goes out to you). The ending to this film is a sweet one that inspires relief, but not much else. But then, maybe it doesn’t need to. Not every movie can be Inside Out and not every film by Pixar needs to.