The word “onward” implies forward momentum; Onward, Pixar’s newest release about two teenage elf brothers seeking to bring their late father back to life for a day, doesn’t quite feel that way for the studio. Then again, in the past half-decade, pretty much every other Pixar film has felt like the studio either falling into nostalgia traps. Toy Story 4, Monsters University, and the second & third Cars films all fit that description regardless of their quality as films. Original stories like Inside Out and Coco are gold-standard cinema. Onward is a mixture of those two sides of Pixar, an original story nevertheless beholden to studio formula — to the letter and its detriment — that presents a neat fictional world with a few good, if familiar, emotional beats.
Expository voiceover explains that this Pixar world was once home to magic, essentially housing a Dungeons & Dragons realm filled with elves, dwarves, centaurs, goblins and the like. Wizards wielded magic, but that magic was also so hard to use that the rest of society invented technological solutions to their problems. Thus, magic slowly disappeared and legendary species were co-opted into roles we know and love — teachers, police officers, office workers and such. Unicorns, sadly, became feral trash-eaters.
Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) lost their father when they were so young that Ian cannot remember him. The story starts on Ian’s 16th birthday, as he finds himself trying to fit in at high school. No thanks to Barley, a gamer addicted to a title called Dungeon Crawlers that, in this world, is based off of real history. That evening, the brothers receive a letter from their father, and a gift: a wizard’s staff with a jewel that can, if used properly, bring their father back into existence for 24 hours. Unfortunately the spell goes wrong and only brings him back waist-down, which means the brothers must go on a quest to obtain another jewel.
It’s a story Pixar has done before and that most kid-centric studios have done before: Little boy wishes he could speak to his father one more time but realizes he’s had the mentor he needed all along; big action setpiece; lots of exposition; lots and lots of exposition. Honestly, Holland and Pratt do a fine job of characterizing the brothers, and the animation is gorgeous. But a large part of the story is simply the brothers facing down successive tasks with new spells — none of which is particularly interesting. Levitation, shape changing, lightning … it’s all standard stuff. The cleverest bits of Onward come from its twisting of fantasy lore into a contemporary setting, but it’s not like that is especially novel. It’s literally the plot of Netflix’s worst original film!
Lack of originality aside, the final moments do pack an emotional wallop thanks to understated visual storytelling and a patience lacking in the rest of the film. Yeah, we’ve seen it before, but that doesn’t mean tugging the “dead dad” heartstrings is totally ineffective. Onward feels like a release that many kids will discover and delight in on Disney+ in a year or two. It’s destined to have that kind of life. It won’t be among the examples of Pixar’s lesser latter decades, and it won’t make any of their “best-of” retrospectives. Trailers made it look like a movie made by a CGI-animation competitor, but the animation quality and glimpses of cleverness make it a higher level than that. Simply put, Onward isn’t forward or back. It’s a firmly neutral expression of storytelling, which is right where some audiences want it. For those seeking a profound experience, well, the trailers never promised it anyway.