Life sucks. Everything I write might as well start like that from now until… whenever this current state of the world ends. I spent my last week of social opportunity having a good final cinema day for who knows how long, with a 2nd viewing of The Invisible Man on the cards followed by a “sneak screening” of Pixar’s latest fare Onward. Doesn’t that sound delightful for a last movie to see for who knows how long? Another movie by a studio renowned for modern animation classics defining generations. Well it all would have been fantastic if I had I liked Onward.
This is the story of our world, except as if it was populated by fantasy characters and magical elements. The society of this world once relied on magic, but society has forgotten it in favour of the technology that has defined the last two centuries. Two elf brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), have lost their father, and as such must embark on a quest beset by him to complete a magic spell that brings him back for one whole day.
So you know for sure that it’ll all lead to a tear-jerker ending in true Pixar fashion.
A similar idea of a modern world with fantasy elements was shown in the tedious 2017 Netflix movie Bright, but with Onward, Pixar and director Mike Scanlon (Monsters University) seek to go as far into the genre as possible, drawing bits and pieces of Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons and many other fantastical universes into an interesting and inventive world. As such, there are some welcome radical changes to our modern world, with various fantasy puns on commonplace items like the existence of a “Mountain Doom” soft drink and “Swamp Gas” stations. I enjoyed being in this world, seeing elves, trolls, centaurs, cyclops’, dragons, and unicorns, all running around doing recognisable activities. At the very least, the magical side of things is nice because magic is always, at its core, instinctively fun due to its infinite possibilities.
The vocal skills of Tom Holland and Chris Pratt displays a strong chemistry with each other, selling a brotherly relationship that’s filled with laughs as well as constant miscommunication. Alone, these actors come across at first as just doing fun voices rather than really being their characters, with Holland just reusing his “Peter Parker” voice and Pratt sounding like if Jack Black was your Dungeon Master for the evening. They work best when they are developing that brotherly relationship together which keeps your attention through this magical adventure.
I say “magical adventure” only in that this an adventure movie that has magic in it, because for a movie about a magical world, it’s unfortunately not much of a magical experience. Real magic can be found, as usual for Pixar, in the stunning animation, which brings rich environments, impossible fantasy creations, and character-based emotions to life. However, the actual adventure we’re watching is pretty paint-by-numbers.
Every step these characters take has a catch to it, a twist that slows them down and makes them rethink their plans, which is the template of most Pixar stories when you think about it. Our characters need to get something or go somewhere and thus their journey is filled with crazy side-characters, danger, action, excitement, and ends with an emotional finale of reconnecting with emotions and/or loved ones. That’s pretty much the entire Pixar filmographies narrative layout, and given their success, it’s a formula that works for sure. But, this familiarity is maybe a little too familiar, and maybe by the umpteenth time round, I’m just a little tired of it.
Beyond the actual world of Onward, there’s nothing really exceptional or truly moving on display. This is Pixar on autopilot, throwing out jokes and humour that feels cut from the other better movies in the past, in service of a plainly obvious emotional story that, and all focusing on two characters who have some charm and likeability that gets strained by the frankly unfunny and tedious side characters they keep running into.
Onward feels cut from the same cloth as Brave, Finding Dory and The Good Dinosaur in that this can entertain some audiences out there, mostly young children, but it lacks that defining quality that will be remembered and loved for years to come. It isn’t as insipid as Cars 2, forgettable as Cars 3, or dishwater-dull as The Good Dinosaur, but it never feels like it’s trying hard enough to earn its own existence.
The fantasy twist on the modern world feels like a pitch meeting idea, reverse-engineered to fit into that typical Pixar mould instead of just being its own natural story about brothers or technology, both of which are only half-developed in the grand schemes of things. A dragon battle finale is quite wild and fun, but Onward is just a mildly enjoyable and mostly distracting journey that might be the best mindless thing for you to see in these dangerous days.
Director: Dan Scanlon
Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Writers: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin, (based on an original story by Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin)