‘Onward’ finds Pixar moving backwards

Legend has it that in 1994, as Pixar was putting the finishing touches on the one and only “Toy Story,” director John Lasseter and writers Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and Joe Ranft gathered during a lunch break and asked a simple question: “What will we do next?”

Their answer came in the form of napkins. Sitting around the table, they sketched what would become four of Pixar’s finest films: “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters, Inc.,” “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E.” The latter was the last of the studio’s storied “napkin movies” and was released in 2008. From there, things went south.

In 2011, Pixar released “Cars 2,” the sequel to what was already considered the ugly duckling of the studio’s filmography. If the original “Cars” was a blemish, “Cars 2” was a bomb. Despite solid box office receipts, the film was panned by critics and became the first Pixar movie not to be nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars.

The studio never quite recovered. With the exception of the films of Pete Docter and Lee Unkrich (“Inside Out” and “Coco”), Pixar has yet to replicate their winning streak. They’ve pumped out underwhelming, unasked-for sequels and a handful of mediocre originals that pale in comparison to the studio’s glory days. Unfortunately, “Onward” is more of the same.

To be fair, “Onward” is cute. It’s a pleasant romp through Fantasyland with enough action and laughs to entertain children and a heartfelt message about family and loss. But who wants their movie to be “cute?” Pixar’s popularity is in large part due to their appeal among adults; their sophisticated storytelling and thoughtful themes have connected with audiences of quite literally all ages, not to mention legitimized animation as a mature artistic medium for the mainstream. “Onward” strives to be those things — and like every Pixar movie, it strives to make you cry — but despite its good intentions, it too comes up short.

“Onward” takes place in a “suburban fantasy world,” where magic isn’t fiction but history. Wizards were real; they’ve just been replaced by technology. It’s a clever premise, and the film is full of even better imagery: mermaids in inflatable kiddie pools, planes flying over mushroom Levitt homes, unicorns as common as sewer rats. But the movie never expands on this potential. The worldbuilding is sparse after the opening montage, and the film never explains the thematic significance of its fantasy setting like a Pixar film should.

It’s mostly just a vehicle for the plot, which revolves around two elf brothers: lanky, awkward Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) and loud, oafish Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt). Their father passed away when they were young; so young, in Ian’s case, that he wasn’t even born yet. But on Ian’s 16th birthday, his mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) gives him a present from Dad: a wizard staff, complete with a spell to bring him back from the dead for a day. But as is the case in movies like this, things don’t go quite as planned. The spell only brings back Pops’ bottom half, and to conjure up the rest of him, Ian and Barley must go on an “epic quest of yore.”

Being a Pixar film, some things in “Onward” just go without saying. The animation is fantastic: lively, colorful, so detailed it must have been painful to make. The voice acting is solid; while the casting is somewhat obvious, it’s obvious because it makes sense. Finally, the fact that the concept is based on director Dan Scanlon’s own experience of losing his father adds a touching new layer to a story that’s otherwise thin. But therein lies the problem: “Onward” is fleeting. It’s a 90-minute fetch quest that keeps you entertained — it might even choke you up — but if my struggle to write this review is any indication, it’s an adventure you won’t soon recall. 6/10

This review was originally published on March 19, 2020 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.

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