Pixar’s Onward was sent almost straight to Disney+ following a record weak opening for the distributor in theatres due either to Covid-19, or maybe more likely because the movie is absolute magical trash. Directed by Dan Scanlon, a Pixar animation veteran with almost no good work under his belt (he directed Monsters University and a pretty bad Cars short film before this) so there’s almost no reason to expect Onward to reach the heights of films from other Pixar lead creators like John Lasseter (Toy Story, Cars) or John Musker (Moana, Aladdin). Does Pixar have a thing for directors called John? Maybe they do- and maybe they need to stick to it.
Onward follows Ian Lightfoot, a high-school elf in a Los Angeles inspired fairy tale world called New Mushroomton (stupid name, I know), except in this present-day adaptation of the infamous city, all the magical beings that inhibit it are deprived of their magical powers by the distraction and ease of modern technology. They’re become automated, normal, life-like & human-esque monsters, fairies and centaurs. It’s all quite mundane, in a beautifully animated world, and the mundanity is the core of the message of Onward – discover your powers by accessing the past, by believing there is more than what meets the eye.
In Onward we follow Ian and his brother Barley over 24-hours as they track down a secret gem needed to cast an ancient and forgotten spell that will bring their dead father back to life for just a short period of time. Unfortunately for Ian and Barley, they started the spell and ruined it by fighting, leaving only the bottom half of their dead father to be summoned, and with that mistake and their father’s animated trousers as company, they set off on a confusing and convoluted quest to summon the remainder of his body by finding a new gem to complete their spell.
Alongside this main thread is the story of the siblings’ mother Laurel Lightfoot (not to be confused with Lori Lightfoot), who teams up with an old mythic beast to find her sons and warn them of the curse they will face at the end of their journey. As these two stories play out side-by-side, with obviously much more screen time given to the brothers’ quest, we genuinely are left in the dust as to the logic of each adventure. I am not kidding when I say that almost everything good that happens during each respective quest is little more than a great big lucky coincidence or the twisted result of some serious character stupidity.
Remember, this is a fantasy movie at heart, with a simple quest to drive the plot, but these annoying protagonists; a hard to relate-to Ian and his godly annoying older brother Barley, can seriously not figure much of this out themselves. Convenience is king here, and these two thick-skulled brothers go from shrinking each other, fighting a pixie gang, speeding away from cops, and misusing spells like it’s their daily routine. Not to mention character arcs for supporting roles like the Manticore and the boy’s mother Laurel being little more than simple “this is what she wanted to be, and by the end of the movie she becomes it” arcs. The usual depth of Pixar’s diverse characters are long gone in this screenplay, and like most disappointing screenplays of modern Hollywood, Onward can’t even stick the landing with a lackluster and rushed ending that quite honestly is heartwarming beyond belief, but a little forced and quite logically confusing.
So what is good about Onward? As annoying as the characters are, the voice actors do their best and Tom Holland and Chris Pratt in particular bring to life each annoying brother as if each truly existed in this half-baked world. It’s also a gorgeous film, albeit nowhere near as creative with it’s cinematography or imagery as say, Moana, but the standard of high quality animation in Onward is to be expected from modern animation releases.
Overall, Onward kind of blunders it’s ability to use cool spells in what could have been a magical-epic, as it only showcases four or five spells in total throughout the movie, and they’re all a bit lame. It doesn’t have a coherent message, and the ending feels like it was decided on before the rest of the movie, or just not thoroughly connected enough to Barely’s character or the feelings of loss he also has for their Dad. It’s a mess, but it’s not unwatchable. It’s easy to drag this film down because Pixar has set the bar so high in the past. Compared to lesser animation studios like Dreamworks (How to Train Your Dragon, Trolls) or Illumination (Minions), this holds up as decent, and you shouldn’t expect to hate it by any means. Just don’t expect a smart story, smart spells or smart siblings.