It’s been a long time since Pixar has really “wowed” me with one of their films, but after watching “Onward,” I can safely say that… the streak has still yet to be broken. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad movie. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, it just feels kind of safe. Lacking in its setting’s originality and feeling a little too familiar around every single aspect of its storytelling, Onward, similar to Toy Story 4, seems more like a smart investment than a group of animators trying to achieve anything groundbreaking, or even close to groundbreaking. Maybe that’s an unfair bar to set for a new IP, but Pixar has done it many times in the past, and with so many of the Disney-owned movies feeling like exact replicas of themselves, it’s a shame Onward didn’t really differentiate itself from the rest of the pack.
The plot is pretty much as straightforward as you can possibly get: two brothers embark on a literal quest to obtain a magical item that will help give them closure on a tragic event of their past, in this case the event being the untimely death of their father. One is an older, fearless yet somehow cool Dungeons & Dragons aficionado while the other is a younger, nerdy high schooler with no friends or social skills but also zero interest in magic or the D&D type game his brother plays. The world they inhabit is basically Zootopia, only for monsters from high fantasy settings, and without any of the care or attention Zootopia put into building a realistic setting for all these creatures of various shapes, sizes, and personal requirements needed to inhabit a society alongside one another.
With the narrative being as generic as it is, the only real interesting part of this movie’s story comes from its setting, which is severely underutilized unfortunately. Unlike the aforementioned Zootopia, the world of Onward feels like it’s constantly clashing with itself, essentially because it’s just the human world but with monsters living and doing all the things humans normally would. The tough but tiny pixies have to share a single motorcycle amongst 8 different drivers, the manticore is too big to fit into a car comfortably, and the centaur has the same problem as the Manticore only he’s literally faster and more agile without the car in the first place. Nothing seems to make any logical sense in this world and the setting seems more concerned with getting a cheap laugh out of the audience than actually adding to the storytelling or worldbuilding in a meaningful way.
Also, one of the core messages of the movie, other than the obvious “family is important” blah blah blah stuff, strikes me as being particularly odd, as it’s essentially parroting the idea that the progression of technology and society isn’t actually a good thing and is, in reality, limiting us in some way. Onward’s universe is one in which magic was previously a real thing that allowed people to perform miracles on a daily basis but was difficult to master, leading to technology becoming an easier alternative for those without the ability to use spells. This led magic to fall out of style, eventually fading into myth as monster society evolved into what is now essentially just human society.
The problem with this line of thinking, and having it eventually be reversed near the end of the film anyway, is that magic is something that would literally never go out of style if it existed within a civilization. While technology might be easier to mass produce, the magic in this movie has so many different uses and utilities that it makes it almost impossible to believe that a core part of this society somehow fell into obscurity at some point just because the light bulb was invented. And unlike the fantastical realm in which Onward takes place, magic doesn’t exist in real life and pretending that our advancement of technology is somehow a bad thing because people “no longer do stuff the hard way” is just a dumb point to try and make. I get that they’re going for the whole “technology has made us disconnected from one another” message too, but that line of thinking has become so tired and repetitive that braindead drivel like The Emoji Movie has already beaten Pixar to the punch on that one.
However, lazy storytelling and mixed messaging aside, Onward does get a lot right in terms of its visuals and heart. The connection between Ian and Barley, the two Elf brothers, was fantastic, and Chris Pratt and Tom Holland work wonderfully together to create the perfect dynamic duo one might expect from any classic fairy tale or high fantasy setting. They’re total opposites but are completely complimentary in both their attitudes and their skillsets, making for an extremely satisfying connection between them that builds throughout the movie as they overcome various challenges in their own unique ways. Chris Pratt in particular does an excellent job voicing Barley and his charismatic but trashy “warrior” personality was always entertaining, even if it did feel like the writing was originally targeted for someone like Jack Black.
Ignoring how lazy the setting was logically incorporated into the story, the overall visuals of the film were also awesome. The landscapes outside the city in particular were absolutely fantastic, though I think it’s pretty much impossible for Pixar to make a bad looking movie at this point. Everything about the overall aesthetics was giving me serious Brütal Legend vibes, which I guess might also play into the Jack Black similarities I was getting from Barley earlier. It might just be because his character also dresses exactly the same as the character from the game, but everything about Barley just screams Eddie Riggs to me. Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you. It also helps that they inhabit similar worlds, though at least in Brütal Legend the reason why magic fell out of being was because nobody could understand the clues left behind by gods that used it, rather than the population of the world just deciding they’d rather have a lightbulb than a magic staff that could do literally anything.
Snarky remarks aside, Onward was still an entertaining watch and never left me feeling bored or annoyed during the experience itself. The characters do a good job of selling the world and story to you, and the movie as a whole is just charismatic enough to escape being forgettable. However, many of the film’s aspects definitely had a lot of room for improvement. Combined with some noticeable logical inconsistencies within the world and you have a fun, if somewhat milquetoast and predictable, movie that will almost certainly entertain a younger audience. It’s a shame the creators didn’t put the same level of care and attention into this film as they did with Zootopia, because if they did, Pixar could’ve had another smash hit and potential franchise on their hands. Instead, they have a decent and perfectly serviceable animated movie that will push all the same buttons in you a hundred other kids’ movies have been pushing for years.
6/10 – Above Average