Pixar has been on a weird little streak for quite some time now, but the cracks began to show and they’ve put out a few…lesser films. That’s fine, they’re still not awful outside of the Cars trilogy, but for a bit there a lot of their audience started waning. I, personally, loved the hell out of Brave. I know I’m in the minority, but I love it anyway. Like me with that one, each of their lesser films still has its audience. There are still absolute brilliances like Coco and Inside Out, but there’s also stuff like Cars 2 and Finding Dory in there. There’s something rough about the recent output, with such a juxtaposition between qualities.
And then there’s Onward.
The film covers the adventure of two brothers, Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt). Their single mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss), is doing what she can to take care of her kids. Ian is a shy kid with a lot of awkwardness, uncomfortable even inviting people that clearly like him to his birthday party. Barley is a loser, loveable but unfocused and obsessed with his D&D-esque games based on the history of their world. Oh, did I forget to mention that? The family are elves, and their world used to be a high-fantasy universe filled with magic. Tech made everything easier, so the culture came to rely on the simplicity of it and lost their magic (Onward is NOT subtle). On Ian’s 16th birthday he receives a staff left to him by his father. The brothers try it out for hours, but it comes to pass that Ian is the one that possesses a penchant for magic when he brings his father’s lower half back. With 24 hours on the clock, the brothers set out to find a special gem and bring the rest of him back so Ian can meet his father. Aided in their quest with a “map” from Corey the Manticore (Octavia Spencer), they launch fully into their bold journey.
Right off the bat this film is VERY charming. The world is bright and colorful, mixed with things we understand by living in our world and things we understand from watching fantasy films. It’s a fun combination, one that almost feels like writer/director Dan Scanlon watched David Ayers’s Bright and decided he could one-up the gritty guy. He’s done so, all at once giving us a world populated with fun visuals and wild characters. There’s something charming about a butch Pixie biker (Grey Griffin) and a sleazy pawn-shop-owning Gremlin (Tracey Ullman) that feels cohesive and never out of place. Hell, even Laurel’s centaur-cop boyfriend, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), is somehow so much fun in his positive-yet-antagonistic relationship with the boys. There might not be any real knocks against the film, but that’s also its biggest problem.
The film as a whole feels very standard. It’s cute, visually gorgeous, but it’s somehow lacking the emotional content that we long for in a Pixar movie. When you finish Inside Out or Coco you’ve been on a JOURNEY, but in a film entirely about a quest it somehow feels like you only went a little ways. That’s part of the plot, small evolutions and understandings that shine new light on relationships, but it doesn’t take us too far. Our lead character, Ian, grows the most but finds the least catharsis in the end. It’s just a series of odd decisions.
That doesn’t mean the film is unenjoyable at all! The vocal performances are fun and really let me forget that I’m watching Spider-Man and Star Lord hang out together. These boys have fantastic chemistry, playful and light but also able to sound harsh and hurt when they need to. They never really damage any feelings, instead just feeling like…brothers with a good relationship. It’s very simple and delightful, and the love they have for their mother is also easy and light. The only true antagonistic interactions they have are with biker Pixies (in the most fun action setpiece of the film) and with Colt Bronco, their mother’s boyfriend. Even that one isn’t really antagonistic, more just annoyance at the situation.
End of the day…this one is fine. It’s even more than fine, it’s actually pretty good. I’m just torn because I appreciate a film full of great relationships, characters that all know their places with each other and even grow together, but there’s a strange lack of conflict in a movie about bringing a man back from the dead. It’s charming, but off. Doesn’t matter, though, because between the visual spectacle and the absolute swagger of a film confident in its simplicity, you’re going to have an absolutely fantastic time.