Following a string of sequel-centred releases from the mammoth animation studios Pixar, their 22nd feature film yet their first original story since Coco in 2017, Onward features all the recognisable elements of a Pixar film, with the exception of long-time Pixar helmsman John Lasseter, who left in 2018 over sexual misconduct claims.
The heart-rendering, inter-generational fun of Disney Pixar’s celebrated family charm endures in Onward, even if it is less inventive and somewhat more disjointed than their previous endeavours.
Much like the aforementioned Coco, in fact, Dan Scanlon’s Onward has the rare honour (or burden?) of being released in the same year as another Pixar film. What’s more, it too tackles contact with the hereafter. In a world where magic once existed but has since been forgotten, two teenage elf brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt), set out on a journey to find the magic still out there after they accidentally bring their late father back for a day… from his waist down.
Onward’s setting is a simple one; essentially what is a provincial American town with elves and mythical creatures in place of humans, this is probably one of Pixar’s least innovative new backdrops. Likewise, the tale of half-orphaned kids on a road trip to find a lost parent feels all too familiar. Sure, it still packs an emotional punch, but there’s something manipulative and artificial about the way Onward chooses to execute its story, making the film feel like a divergence from their previous initiatives. What should be an explosion of idiosyncratic variants combining to make that all-important Ratatouille-esque harmony in flavour, instead leaves a rather plain taste on the tongue which fails to resonate as much as it thought it might.
The surroundings lack the spark to ignite the magic in this tale, despite the Pixar formula doing its best to break you emotionally. Pratt and Holland play their characters well, and though they’re certainly not an instant classic Pixar combo, they bounce off each other effectively over the course of the film and make for an entertaining watch. Clever one-liners keep the pace of the film going, and Onward is generally successful with its high-speed momentum.
Indeed, the story may be personal for Scanlon, whose father died when he was young, but the Lightfoot brother’s journey materialises through what feels like routine procedure. Similar to the constant obstacle-infused exploit of Inside Out, everything that could possibly go wrong, does, but where Onward falters is with its use for the impediments – the reasoning for such hindrances to exist.
While Inside Out relayed its message and tailored its problems through the changes experienced inside the mind of a vulnerable young girl, Onward plays each of its story deviations out as largely insignificant time-filling plot devices. There’s nothing really to challenge the perspectives of viewers, with the exception of a wonderfully rewarding if slightly miscalculated tie-up towards the end.
For Pixar’s standards, it’s hard not to judge this film in light of what has come before it, and disappointingly absent is the genre-subversive, artistic flair illustrious of the originality of Pixar Animation Studios. There are no standout, imaginative segments which throw the audience an energising curveball such as with the space ballet scene in WALL-E; no daring tone modifications like the synergistic adult perspective provided in Up; nor the same level of creative intricacy as displayed in the animation of Coco. Instead, everything is just… good, which strangely does not feel good enough.
Perhaps it’s down to the unaccustomed feeling of walking out of a Pixar film with few memorable moments to reminisce over.
Onward is certainly an enjoyable film, that cannot be denied. But in its attempts to resonate with the old-familiar, it serves only as an isolated slice of forgettable fun. One can only hope that it serves this year as Cars 3 did in 2017, and Pete Docter’s Soul, out in June, turns out to be the Coco of 2020.
Image: Movie DB
Josh Teggert is a Screen Editor at Forge Press.
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