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'Onward' Review: Pixar's family fantasy is satisfying, standard fare from the animation giant

It can feel like the new animated movie is sticking to a template. But it still has its moments of sheer delight and visual creativity.
Credit: Courtesy: Pixar

There are few words, if any, that I imagine have been used to describe a Pixar movie more often than “magical.” The ingenious premise of “Toy Story,” the odyssey of Wall-E wordlessly cleaning an abandoned world, the sheer joy of “Un Poco Loco” being sung in a vibrant rendition of the Land of the Dead—all worthy of being called “magical” 25 years into a period that’s seen the bar for animation raised higher than the 50 years prior. 

It’s about time, then, that Pixar has made a movie in which magic is an explicit force, though “Onward” – the first of two films coming from the animation funhouse studio in 2020 – is less another landmark of innovation and more a plug-‘n-play production with familiar aesthetic delights. The movie is fun (enjoyable even!), but despite “Onward” being leagues better than backwards Pixar misfires like “Cars 2” or “The Good Dinosaur,” “fun” and “enjoyable” is no “magical.” Such is the Pixar Standard.

Shepherding requisite genre tropes of self-belief and familial forgiveness within the influence of “Dungeons & Dragons,” “Lord of the Rings” and maybe a sprinkling of John Hughes, too, “Onward’s” premise is the movie’s most original aspect and also its least-explored: While there are centaurs, unicorns and elves in this world, they don't engage in spell-casting practices, but instead drive blocky police cars, run pawn shops and pull on sweatshirts to get ready for the first day of school. Per the world-building narration that’s offered early on, the unpredictability of magic at one point became inferior to the reliability of technology, and a community otherwise nestled in the crook of a mythical valley has taken on the look of a brick-and-mortar suburban town (albeit with mushroom-capped abodes). 

The setting is beautifully-rendered, but at the risk of saying the movie has a "DreamWorks feel" as if that studio was artistically inferior, “Onward” lacks the jaw-dropping visual splendor of recent fare like “Coco” or “Toy Story 4.”

Nonetheless, it's here that timid Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) lives with his Pilates-practicing mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and older bombastic brother, Barley (Chris Pratt). Dad isn’t around, not anymore – he passed away when Ian was too young to know him – but a magical staff he left for his youngest son to be gifted once he turned 16 provides a chance for the two to meet, to really meet, for a single day. So long as Ian can capably muster the extinct kind of magic to pull the resurrection off. 

It’s a heart-wrenching scene given slapstick potential when the staff (specifically, the amber-colored MacGuffin of a gem powering it) does only half its job, reviving a pair of legs, a waist and nothing more. With another gem to find and the sands sifting through the proverbial hourglass, Ian and Barley set off with Dad’s sentient (but silent) khaki-wearing legs. What ensues is a series of obstacle-course set pieces that can feel frustratingly like director Dan Scanlon sticking to a template, even if that template offers up fleeting moments of legitimate emotion and so-ridiculous-you’ve-just-got-to-smile cartoon verve. 

What makes “Onward” a relatively underwhelming Pixar film (it might be the most perfectly average entry in the catalogue) is how little the fascinating conceit of the superordinary replacing the supernatural informs the story. Scanlon (who also directed “Monsters University”) collaborated on the screenplay with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, and the result more closely resembles a basic fetch-quest narrative than a tale about the implications of a society that’s relegated its outdated foundations to fodder for an in-movie board game, foundations that only Barley still believes in the power of. It can seem like the movie is nurturing multiple sparks, with none of them given the time or oxygen to become something brighter and richer. 

In recent years, Pixar has delved into the psychology of the modern teen with “Inside Out” and used its flagship “Toy Story” franchise to examine the struggle between comfort and personal fulfillment, so you’ll forgive me if I think a surface-level story about the malleability of family dynamics feels a bit routine, if not rote. The most exciting and surprising Pixar stories tend to be ones where a sense of incredulity (talking toys, a rat who cooks, sentient emotions, etc.) is inseparable from narrative intention. In “Onward,” the existence of magic is rarely utilized beyond gag fodder and plot fuel; it’s never vital the way, say, “Coco’s” Land of the Dead symbolizes a refuge for loved ones from being forgotten forever. Ironically, that may be a product of furious pacing—“Onward” is 100 minutes long, but breezes by like a 25-minute Saturday morning cartoon.

While Ian and Barley don’t start off fully seeing eye-to-eye, they’re clearly close to each other. But this being a Pixar movie, you can expect for there to be a tinge of resentment that flares up before the inevitable sweet moment of selflessness, an aspect of the movie that doesn't pay off as satisfyingly as it's built up. Holland and Pratt lending their voice talents makes so much sense it’s almost annoying; the latter’s leather-tough personality in particular is unmistakably Pratt, most evident in the ways he vocalizes eagerness about his punk-rock van, Guinivere, with full-throated optimism and betrayal served up from his brother with airy, depressing whispers.

Credit: Courtesy: Pixar

There are flashes of ingenuity that occasionally rise above the general lack of storytelling risk, including one exhilarating sequence that sees the boys trying to escape a hardened gang of spiked collar-wearing fairies. If you measure your reaction to animated fare by how successfully they feed off the form, the visual dynamics of that scene might be the most memorable takeaway, along with the creative portrayal of a threatening winged foe in an otherwise threat-less finale. As always, your tear ducts are the thing that will be most defenseless, thanks to Pixar’s emotional volition that’s as war-like as ever. 

That “Onward” emotionally climaxes with Ian redefining the contours of his own family is nothing new for Pixar, which has confidently blended audience and subject matter ever since 1995’s “Toy Story.” There’s nothing groundbreakingly magical about Scanlon’s effort, no moment as stunning as finding out the true meaning of “Remember Me” or recognizing the vitality of sadness. But, in a way, the ironic familiarity of the film’s enchanted world reinforces its themes of togetherness—a grounded approach that makes a less spectacular Pixar work still worth a trip to the theater, especially in March. 25 years on, and at the start of a new decade, that may be just how the studio would like it. 

"Onward" is rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements

Starring: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer

Directed by Dan Scanlon