Pixar has dipped its toes in various genre waters, and at their best, they blend of unfettered imagination, clever humor, and well-earned emotional gravitas. With their latest film, Onward, Pixar returns to the realm of full-fledged fantasy for an adventure of self-discovery and brotherhood. Though the film never makes full use of its unique setup, but Onward‘s emotional arc rings true.
Directed by Dan Scanlon, with a screenplay co-written by Scanlon, Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, Onward tells the story of Ian and Barley Lightfoot (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt), two brothers who lost their dad before Ian was born. They live in a suburban fantasy world, where fantasy creatures live very much like we humans do now. Long before their time, magic was the norm. But once these creatures found easier ways to live (electricity and the like) magic began to dissipate.
The brothers’ mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) surprises Ian with a sixteenth birthday gift from his late father: a magic staff that can cast a spell to bring back his dad for an entire day.
Barley, who believes in magic more than anyone else, is ecstatic. And Ian is eager to meet his father for the first time. However, they mess up the spell, and only the bottom half of their dad’s body appears. The only way to get him all back is a quest to find a replacement Phoenix Gem to power the staff.
Onward, at its core, is a story about two brothers dealing with grief and loss. But it’s also about coming closer together in the process. And that central theme of brotherhood is where the film hits the emotional nail on the head. As the story progresses, we learn more about Ian and Barley’s sometimes-contentious sibling relationship. But we also get hints at Barley’s relationship with their deceased father. And as realizations come to the fore about Ian’s incessant need to meet his father, there’s a dramatic shift in motivations and character focus that gave me those reliably deep Pixar feels.
Along with a touching screenplay, Tom Holland and Chris Pratt’s vocal performances are a big part of what makes the sibling relationship work. The cadence of their voices are a great match. And they sell the film’s climactic emotional revelations well. What’s perhaps more surprising is that the film’s humor never quite lands, which I don’t really blame the actors for. There is a lack of ingenuity with the humor, typically a staple of Pixar’s filmography.
With Inside Out or Toy Story or Finding Nemo, the various artists and writers find all the creative ways to play up the central conceits of their stories. The humor tumbles naturally out of the overwhelming imagination of creators immersed in the worlds they create. And Onward feels like it will be the same way in the beginning. The visual gags of unicorns being this world’s raccoons and pixie biker gangs are good for a chuckle.
But it never quite does enough with its premise of a fantastical reality. If the film took place during medieval times, it would be just about the same experience. It’s a shame, especially since the animation is rendered beautifully. And some of the visual ideas are pretty cool. There’s potential to make something truly creative, but Onward mostly settles for a straightforward adventure. There are only mere hints of Pixar’s historically-boundless invention.
What Onward lacks in narrative ingenuity and imagination, it makes up for with genuine emotional resonance and character arcs that shift in honestly-felt ways. It’s below the very high creative bar that Pixar has set for itself. But Onward is still better than most of the family entertainment in cinemas as of late.
Onward is rated PG and is in theaters now.
All images courtesy of Disney/Pixar.