Day of the Dad
As others have observed, the overall trend of Pixar’s releases has been a gradual decline in creativity, with the freshness of Toy Story giving way to the banal likes of Cars and Inside Out. The conceit of Onward is on the trite end of the spectrum; its serviceable and shallow fantasy-creatures-meet-modern-technology setup feels like it could have come from any one of Hollywood’s anonymous computer animation factories.
A prologue explains that Onward’s setting used to be a fairly standard fantasy land, but when electricity was discovered, its relative convenience made magic obsolete. Many years later, society has become a comfortable yet pedestrian facsimile of our own, complete with modern clothes, cars, and smartphones; all of which clash with the mythical creatures using them. Despite their species ranging from cyclopes to centaurs, most of Onward’s characters are essentially human. Like much of the movie’s world-building, the approach feels half-baked; more concerned with showing off the admittedly pristine visuals than creating a setting that feels lived-in.
But first, the plot. Ian (Tom Holland), a hopelessly awkward elf, is trying and failing to reinvent himself at the onset of his sophomore year of high school. He yearns for the guidance of his dad Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer), who died of illness when Ian was a baby. Ian’s wish is apparently granted when his caring mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives him a magical staff Wilden left to Ian before his death, along with instructions for a spell that will bring Wilden back for just one day. Ian attempts the ritual but stumbles midway through, damaging the staff and manifesting only his father’s disembodied lower half. To complete the spell, he’ll have to retrieve a rare gem from a faraway mountain before the 24-hour clock runs out. Along for the ride is Ian’s embarrassing older brother Barley (Chris Pratt), a mega-nerd obsessed with a Dungeons and Dragons-like board game which proves unexpectedly useful on the pair’s journey.
After a manic, over-stimulated first act, Onward’s plot chugs along smoothly and predictably, sending the brothers through various epic and not-so-epic trials on their quest to retrieve the gem. It’s all perfectly, dispiritingly adequate, with competent story beats and visual gags that are cute but rarely inspired. The central conceit quickly loses its novelty, exposing just how stale most of the plot is. Bursts of sloppy writing become more and more apparent as the lush animation’s spell starts to wear off. The visually inventive climax is the only time where the magic-mundane synthesis realizes its full potential, but it’s in the service of an already-tired aesthetic.
The movie’s most blatant plot hole is the question of why magic is seemingly only ever used by the two brothers. Surely the fantastical abilities it affords them, from levitation to enlargement to resurrecting the dead, would have some practical use in their society. I know the easy response to this is some variation of “it’s just a kids’ movie,” but Pixar’s best efforts have never leaned on such cop-outs. Considering the richly-drawn worlds of some of their other movies, Onward’s relative indifference can’t help but disappoint.
The only real magic in Onward is its bittersweet poignancy; it knows how to jerk its fair share of tears without feeling too manipulative, showing welcome restraint with emotional payoffs that could have been milked to an obscene degree. The actors are also key in this regard, giving sincere performances even in the more functional roles. Holland and Pratt work up some nice brotherly chemistry in the leads, with the latter the movie’s clear standout. As the kind of good-hearted oaf he regularly played before he buffed up, Pratt manages to bring sweetness to a character who could have otherwise been shrill and one-note. His performance, along with Onward’s other strengths, deserves better.