Since the premiere of Toy Story some 25 years ago, Pixar films have fallen into three distinct groups. At the top are the movies that simply blow us away, introducing wondrous new ideas and themes to complement the ever-evolving animation technology. These are the all-time greats like WALL-E, Up, The Incredibles, and Inside Out. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the barely passable, sometimes downright awful entries that seem like they were rejected from pitch meetings, but Disney decided there was an opportunity for marketing, and thus demanded the movies be made anyway. This is where you get A Bug’s Life, The Good Dinosaur, most of the prequel/sequels (except for the Toy Story series and Incredibles 2), and basically the entire Cars franchise.
Then there’s the middle group, filled with delightful, fun distractions that ultimately won’t be the first thing any fan (casual or dedicated) recalls, but when reminded, they’ll be like, “Oh yeah, I remember that one. It was really good.” That’s where you get the likes of Ratatouille, Brave, and Finding Nemo.
We can now safely add Onward to that middle group. It’s by no means a bad movie. In fact there are several poignant moments, and for once Disney’s fetish-level penchant for dead parents serves a grander purpose. At the same time, this is arguably the safest, most straightforward entry in the entire Pixar universe. The animation is crisp, but nothing groundbreaking. The story is sweet and funny, but ultimately run of the mill. This is a perfectly adequate movie. The only reason you might find yourself truly disappointed is that Pixar has set the standard in animation for a quarter century, and this just seems like a tossed off effort.
Set in a world eerily similar to suburban America, though on a planet with two moons (still somehow called Earth), the universe of Onward is one where fantasy creatures take the place of humans and magic used to loom large, but the advent of modern technology rendered everyone a bit lazier and less reliant on supernatural skills. If that sounds like Idiocracy with Elves, it’s not nearly that cynical (or satirically smart), just more of an excuse to use fantasy elements as a skin for a fairly linear story about modern families.
In this world, we focus on the Lightfoot family, particularly the two young adult sons Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt). Given that we’ve seen Spider-Man and Peter Quill team up before – and probably because both actors are at least 30% owned by Disney at this point – the pair have a natural chemistry and a lived-in feeling, even when it’s just their voices at play here. Ian is nervous and socially awkward, basically straight out of the high school nerd playbook, while Barley is excitable, rambunctious, and has an obsessive love for fantasy, mythology, and role-playing, including parody versions of “Dungeons & Dragons” and “Magic: The Gathering.” He also has a beat-up van with a sweet unicorn paint job (unicorn/pegasus hybrids are this world’s equivalent of raccoons). It’s a role that Jack Black would have played 15 years ago without blinking, or Chris Farley 30 years ago.
The two are raised by their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, embodying every middle-aged suburban white lady stereotype), after their father (Kyle Bornheimer) died of an undisclosed illness while Laurel was pregnant with Ian. Barley has a handful of memories about him, but Ian literally never even met him. On his 16th birthday, however, he gets the chance, as the dying Wilden left his future son a gift in the form of a wizard’s staff and a “Phoenix Gem,” along with a magic spell of his own creation that will resurrect him for one day.
Barley is unsuccessful in his attempt to use the spell, but in a moment of despondence, Ian gives it a try, and the spell begins to work. However, a bungled moment from Barley, combined with the destruction of the gem, leaves the spell only half complete. Wilden has been brought back to life, but only the bottom half of him. As most of Barley’s games are based upon real stories and legends in this universe, they set out to find the Manticore (Octavia Spencer), who now calls herself “Corey” and runs a Charles Entertainment Cheese-style family restaurant (yes, the “E” stands for “Entertainment” – look it up), in hopes of getting a map to another gem so they can complete the spell within their 24-hour time limit. This sets the young men on a quest, which Barley has wanted his entire life, and forces Ian to confront his fears and insecurities while also attempting to master his heretofore unknown wizarding skills. Fearing for her boys’ safety, Laurel eventually joins up with Corey and pursues them (since Corey conveniently forgot to mention a terrible curse should they actually acquire the stone), along with her new centaur boyfriend, a cop named Bronco (Mel Rodriguez of Last Man on Earth).
As I said, the story is fairly by the numbers. Establish the characters, create an inciting incident, send them on their way, antics ensue, mission eventually succeeds or fails based on previous actions or plot contrivance, lessons are learned, and hugs are exchanged. Really, the only reason to even have the backdrop of a fantasy world is for some references and sight gags (a motorcycle gang made up of pixies, for example), and to facilitate the existence of magic, which the opening narration notes has diminished of late. Hopefully this is not a meta commentary on the quality of Disney and Pixar’s work, but then again, how many live-action remakes are we up to now? It’s very possible that the studio is slyly conceding that in the age of acquisition (Star Wars, Marvel, etc.) and assembly-line distribution, the most recent Golden Age of the House of Mouse might be well into our rear-view mirrors.
It also doesn’t help that a lot of the film is derivative. The slapstick antics of Ian and Barley escorting their father’s legs all over the place (with a makeshift torso and head made from laundry so as not to freak the world out along the way) is about as Weekend at Bernie’s as you can get within a family cartoon. The central goal of bringing a dead parent back to life for one day is lifted straight from Steven Spielberg’s ending to A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. A lot of the obstacles the boys overcome, including booby traps in a dungeon-like setting look like they were copied and pasted from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Hell, I mentioned Jack Black earlier, and it should be noted that Ian and Barley’s entire dynamic is note-for-note the same one employed by Colin Hanks and Jack Black in Orange County.
Still, this is Pixar we’re talking about, so even when they’re barely trying, they still manage to explore some otherwise ignored avenues. Yes, Disney kills parents off like a bug zapper in the Louisiana bayou, but the key character relationship is one that they almost never look at, and that’s the bond between brothers. Off the top of my head, I can only think of two Disney movies that ever even scratched the surface, and in both of those cases, it was in service to a dead brother who served in a parental role (Brother Bear and Big Hero 6). While a lot of the character beats are a bit cliché, it is somewhat uncharted territory for anything under the Disney umbrella to focus its story on the ways big brothers – even oafish blunderers – use their life experience to prepare their younger siblings for the harsh realities of the world, and how little brothers, no matter how much they doubt themselves, look up to their elder as a role model. This sort of “so natural that it’s amazing they haven’t gone there yet” approach is also the most resonant part of Brave, which not only had a living mother, but one whose relationship to her daughter was of paramount concern. Most of the time Disney moms are either dead, evil, or a non-entity. In that film, even in bear form, she was essential, as was her bond to Merida.
And even in a goofy, sort of blasé entry, there are still some moments that stick with you because they’re so well done. Laurel and Bronco’s ringtone for one another is “Let’s Get it On,” which is just hilarious given Disney’s authoritarian avoidance of anything sexual. Like Frozen II late last year, there’s basically no villain in this film, focusing more on the adventure and the character development. The closest thing to any kind of antagonist is the pixie gang, and even then they’re more of a joking distraction than a real obstacle. In surprisingly progressive asides, Laurel spares no thoughts of disloyalty in loving her new boyfriend and in wanting her sons to succeed in resurrecting their father. There’s also a brief scene where one of Bronco’s fellow officers (Lena Waithe) casually makes it known that she’s a lesbian, and it’s treated as completely normal, as it should be (sadly this one line of dialogue got the film banned in a few countries and edited in others).
But most of all, there is a genuinely heartfelt running beat in how Wilden communicates with the boys. Because it’s only the bottom half of him, he can’t hear, so he reaches out the only way he can, with his foot. The subtle rapport that’s built just from a tap and a slide is the type of purely beautiful imagery that has made Pixar the standard bearer of animation for so long. It’s a shame that the rest of the movie isn’t like that, but it’s so good on its own that it makes up for a lot of the movie’s shortcomings.
This film will most certainly not be placed among Pixar’s pantheon of instant classics. Hell, with the highly anticipated Soul due out in June, this film may end up being a footnote for the studio, quickly forgotten as it’s overshadowed by much more ambitious work. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore a solid piece of entertainment right here and now. This is a very easy film, in story, animation, and humor aspects. But even so, Pixar makes the most of the few moments of poignancy the film has, exploring an untapped resource of thematic profundity in the bonds of trusting brotherhood, showing its loyal audience that even in familiar territory, there’s still some magic left.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite Pixar film? Have you ever encountered a gelatinous cube? Let me know!