In times of old is the opening line of this movie. It also makes me feel nostalgic for a time when, if a Pixar movie was coming out, people could expect unbridled, unmatched quality. Pixar’s run from its movie inception in 1995 until 2010 is nothing short of legendary, and it’s one that most animation studios wish they had. But ever since Toy Story 3, it’s safe to say that it has certainly taken a dip in quality. Some blame the studio’s emphasis on producing sequels over original ideas, but for me personally, it’s more than that. It’s taking a step away from what made their movies great to begin with.
The premise for Onward is simple enough: in a world where fantasy creatures such as elves, goblins, fairies, centaurs, etc. have been domesticated by the emphasis on technology over traditional magic over hundreds of years, two elf brothers embark on a quest to bring their dad back for one day. On the day of younger Lightfoot brother Ian’s (Tom Holland) 16th birthday, he and his older, millennial stereotype brother Barley (Chris Pratt) are given a token of memorabilia leftover from their deceased father: a wizarding staff, complete with a phoenix gem, as their father was still a devout student of magic despite its growing irrelevance in the current climate. Unfortunately, Ian messes up the spell and only brings back their dad’s lower half, as well as destroying the phoenix gem in the process, which leaves the brothers 24 hours to find another gem in order to complete the spell and spend a day with their dad before he disappears forever.
On the surface, this movie accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. It’s a fun, light fluffy affair that families can take their kids to and have a good time watching in the process. The voice cast is fine, the stand-out being Pratt, who brings his usual over the top energy to turn an average run of the mill character into the most watchable part of the movie. The world is interesting and creative enough, and the visual sight gags mostly all work and are enjoyable and clever enough. This is also probably the first major Disney property that has a quick blink and you’ll miss it LGBTQ moment that doesn’t feel forced at all, which is so refreshing compared to the tactics the corporation has taken with these kinds of moments in their big-budget movies in the past.
But that’s all this movie is: fun, light and fluffy. People will go into this, have a good fun time, and then not remember a single minute after they leave. The thing that’s always been so impressive about Pixar is their ability to envelope their audience members in these worlds that, despite being some of the most outlandish ones possible, feel so real, which really speaks to the creative talent this company had. The monster’s world in “Monsters Inc.,” Riley’s Head in “Inside Out,” the trash-filled dystopic Earth in “Wall-E,” even more generic locations like in “Toy Story” and “Cars” just felt so intriguing, like one could spend hours just figuring out more about these worlds. This one is interesting in concept, but the difference here is that it has no interest in actually exploring any of it. If anything it just wants to rush people through this adventure like a carnival ride. There’s not a lot that’s memorable about it, the locations are one’s basic fantasy/D&D locales (the movie goes out of its way to remind the audience about it’s D&D connections) and the sight gags, while funny, go by so quickly that one doesn’t even have time to realize the context before being rushed on to the next plot point.
It’s a situation that a few other people have brought up, which is that this feels more like a Dreamworks movie than a Pixar movie, and that point has a decent amount of weight to it. The thing that set Pixar and Dreamworks apart from each other for long was that while Pixar was interested in making their worlds and characters feel as relatable and creative as possible, Dreamworks was always more focused on exploring the humor in familiar settings through deconstruction. The “Shrek” movies are the best example of this, with their abrasive and extremely humorous poking fun at fairy tale tropes and cliches, but this technique goes back to their debut film “Antz,” released the same year as Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life,” with wildly similar premises. This movie, however, feels like it’s trying to have it both ways, attempting to be deconstructive while also trying to have this super emotional journey, and it comes off as very strange, and even more tonally confused. To top it off, certain plot points end up convoluting the story even further to the point where the emotional payoffs feel cheap and unearned, literally as if they were thought of at the last minute.
This is a movie that accomplishes exactly what it’s going for: a quick, fun ride that families can take their kids to, recognize two of their favorite Marvel stars, laugh quickly at a few jokes, and enjoy a slightly light, fun affair. In that sense, it works. As an animated film, it ranges along the line of not being unbearable to watch, but also not having a lot going for it that separates it from the rest. It’s not insulting as far as Pixar fare goes, there most certainly has been a lot worse, and the other saving grace this movie has going for it is that it’s directed by Dan Scanlon, who directed the most bearable out of the non-Toy Story Pixar sequels, Monsters University. But if anything, the big takeaway here is that Pixar’s priorities are simply not where they used to be [B].