Pixar‘s latest, Onward, is something of a misstep for the studio, and it may be precisely because it is an attempt to be the least magical feature they’ve created, by being the most magical.
All of Pixar‘s films are beholden to an acceptance of magic (even if that only means talking toys or cars), which sets a stage, like all great fantasy stories, for accepting things about the real world, by talking about fake worlds. Their movies have used this to such great effect that many of their films go beyond the pure storytelling abilities of just about anything they compete with, animated or not.
In Onward, our story is that we are in a fantasy world, complete with fantastical beasts and real magic, that has moved beyond itself. The world has become “normal,” preferring the ease of electricity to the complex necessities of magic. Elves are simply people, dragons are pets, adventuring manticores are theme restaurant owners.
There’s much to be said for the film’s ability to translate “normal” hopes, fears, worries, and self-doubt into a new, and hopefully fun, world, but something is missing in the ultimate delivery. Brothers Barley (Chris Pratt) and Ian (Tom Holland) Lightfoot take adventure to whimsically mundane heights (or perhaps plains), and the dissection of their lack of relationship with their father, who they are trying to bring back via a magic spell they don’t understand, is brilliant. Still, something is missing in the translation and though certainly fun for the whole family and a clearly rollicking, quest-fueled dose of clever hijinx, the heart of the matter doesn’t come through the way it did in Coco or Inside Out.
It’s a clear step up from director Dan Scanlon‘s Monsters University, but there is a similar feel to the overall effort’s sidestepping of the meat of things. It’s sit-com-y where it should add character, and relies on the gag quality of pixies and shrink spells where other Pixar films take the time to deliver emotion.
Of course, mediocre Pixar films are still better than most, but Onward is sadly a missed opportunity. Barley and Ian get enough development to bring us something that is, perhaps unfortunately, reminiscent of the dynamic of The Goldbergs, but we haven’t really been through enough with them by the end to truly deliver the punchline. If the emotional payoff gets to you, it’s probably because you have kids, as opposed to because the film has earned it. That’s a serious miss for Pixar, a studio that does nothing so well as earning any response it asks of audiences.
All ages will still have a great time, but in a film that is literally in search of magic, it’s disappointing not to find any.