This is the second feature film directed by Dan Scanlon for Pixar Animation Studios following Monsters University, and it also strikes one as being a more personal passion project compared to the aforementioned prequel. At least on paper, the idea of a film that heavily involves fantastical creatures having lost their touch with magic could result in something more thoughtful – but oddly enough, there’s so little of that to be felt here. Onward isn’t a bad film by any stretch of the word, but when you stack it against Pixar at their best, it just falls very flat.
Set in a suburban world where mythical creatures live their lives like humans on a regular day, Onward tells the story of the elf brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt). On Ian’s 16th birthday, he and Barley receive a magical staff which supposedly would resurrect their late father for one day: but something goes wrong and only the bottom half of their father comes back, which sends the two on a quest to try and discover what remains of the magic that once was in their world. Being based the relationship between Dan Scanlon and his younger brother following the death of his father, there’s something that should seem more inventive coming about but ironically, Onward just seems to lack that same sort of magic.
For a film that seems so personal for Scanlon, it only feels like that impact can only be felt in spades because there’s so little time to explore any of that when the half-father only comes back as something of a Weekend at Bernie’s-like gag. Which exemplifies one of the biggest problems that Onward suffers from: most of the humour doesn’t land either, and it just feels odd enough that this is a Pixar movie where I never found myself laughing at all. Most of the humour feels derived from pop culture references of simple goofiness at the expense of its potentially thoughtful premise, where the film always feels at odds with itself.
Weirdly enough, for a Pixar movie all about an adventure to find magic, most of the premise doesn’t particularly do very much in order to warrant its fantastical setting either. As easy as it could be to admire the quality of the animation in many of Pixar’s work, Onward also rings as being very uninspired. Many of the designs for the mythical creatures look very by-the-numbers, even the setting doesn’t particularly jump at you with that same wonder either because it’s just a generic city being occupied by these creatures instead of humans. The landscapes otherwise do look pretty, as expected for Pixar but even then, that’s only the bare minimum being covered here.
But Onward still finds itself at its best when it feels that Scanlon’s more personal touches to the story are most evident. The chemistry between Tom Holland and Chris Pratt do make for an entertaining watch, though there’s also just so much of Pratt’s character that I feel like I could take before I easily got tired of his schtick. Holland’s voice still carries that same angst one feels from his portrayal of Spider-Man, trying to find a way to change his life around at age 16 – but the film’s peak comes by in its climax, which exemplifies Pixar’s best qualities. It’s a shame that for as powerful as the emotional crux of that moment is, it also never really felt as if it had much room to breathe either.
I really don’t want to be harsh on a movie that obviously has its good qualities, but what’s missing is that same sort of magic spark that kept Pixar at their very best over the years. Part of me is hoping that Dan Scanlon could potentially make something great within the future, although based on what he’s shown us in this and Monsters University I feel like it’ll probably be a long time coming before any of that happens. While Pixar obviously has a knack for nailing these obvious emotive beats it also becomes a tad too clear that they can’t be used to mask a generic story that seems to be worn out even by Pixar beating down on their own formula.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
Directed by Dan Scanlon
Screenplay by Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin
Produced by Kori Rae
Starring Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer
Release Date: March 6, 2020
Running Time: 102 minutes