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This is the first original Pixar film in a little under four years. The last five pictures from the renowned studio have all been sequels. To say that expectations are high would be an understatement at this point; especially as Pixar has been playing it coy with the release, hiding the film in early March with little fanfare. And while ONWARD doesn’t disappoint, it isn’t anywhere near the caliber that Pixar has set for themselves in the past.
Magic used to be real and everywhere. It was hard to control and unpredictable, but wondrous and all-encompassing. Unicorns were mighty steeds that warriors rode into battle, and epic quests were as commonplace as 7-11’s. It was the invention of technology that led people to get complacent and lazy. Fast forward a hundred years, and unicorns roam the streets like raccoons, stealing leftovers where they can, and pixies have forgotten how to fly. Only a scant few remember past glories through roleplaying games like Legends of Yore. One of these people is Barley (Chris Pratt), the slacker brother to the shy, anxious mess Ian (Tom Holland).
The brothers share a mutual loss; their father passed away when Ian was just a baby, and Barley too young to comprehend the enormity. Their mother (Julia-Louis Dreyfus) has done her best moving on, but the memory of a love lost lingers. On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, they discover a package from their father containing a spell allowing for one last day together. But the incantation proves too powerful, leaving their father animated up to his waist. Refusing to give up, the boys to set upon a quest to finish the spell before time runs out.
The coming of age story is standard Pixar fare, carried by effortless charm of the two leads. Heavily typecast, Pratt continues his career as a human golden retriever, while Holland is by now a poster boy for anxiety. Surprisingly it’s the silent father who proves most engaging, showcasing once again Pixar’s talent for visual comedy. Julia-Louis Dreyfus continues being naturally hilarious in anything she does, even if the first half of the film keeps her tied up needlessly. Octavia Spencer gets the funniest part of the film as a manticore trying to suppress her inner nature, and Lena Waithe makes Disney history in a small but important cameo.
There’s nothing particularly new here that Pixar hasn’t done before. The adventure itself is as straightforward as you’d expect; self-realization here, courage there, familial ties just around the corner. None of that is inherently bad, but it does feel like the mammoth studio is playing it safer than usual. As if the years following the disappointing THE GOOD DINOSAUR left them uncertain of themselves. It’s a strange mix; half the film is pressing on the gas, while the other firmly on the brakes.
It’s established early on that Ian is the only brother still capable of magic, and he has absolutely no interest in the lore that his brother loves. Bickering between brothers about who gets to say goodbye to their dad is endlessly touching, yet it’s treated so gingerly it might as well not exist at all. The resolution is far more mature than anything Pixar has done before, but it feels lesser because the road to get there doesn’t take any risks.
At its best, ONWARD showcases the high quality worldbuilding we’ve come to expect from Pixar. The world of mundane fantasy is consistently funny and entertaining thanks to heaps of Dungeons and Dragons themed humor. (A consistent callback to a classic monster pays off beautifully in one of the funniest scenes of the film.) Fans of the iconic roleplaying game are going to be in heaven. By the time a long expected dragon makes an appearance, it’s just as wonderful and exciting as you’d hope for.
The film takes such a broad aim at just about everything that the usual precision from the studio just isn’t there. It talks about, but never elaborates, how things used to be better, and that nostalgia is mainly treated as an aside. A subplot deals with fantastical creatures losing their place in the world, yet it amounts to nothing more than a quick gag. Barley is knocked around for living with his nose in a fantasy book while letting his life slip away, but even that realization is treated like a demerit for those pointing it out. The camaraderie between brothers is genuinely affecting, yet ONWARDS never seems to want to ask the more painful questions even with the heavy subject matter at hand. ONWARD adamantly refuses to take a stand on anything, which leads to a pleasant but surprisingly empty big picture.
These might sound like minor quibbles, and they are that for the most part. The stunning animation, great performances, and the wild adventure all swept me away in the moment. None of the issues mentioned are a problem during the film, it’s only afterwards, if you think about what you just saw, that they start to surface. For the first time the aftermath is not one of introspection, but a passing feeling of “that’s it?”
When has that ever been the case with Pixar?