Producer: Kori Rae Director: Dan Scanlon Screenplay: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley and Keith Bunin Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Ali Wong, Lena Waithe, Grey Griffin, Tracey Ullman and John Ratzenberger Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Audiences are so accustomed to home runs from Pixar that when the studio stumbles and produces a picture that’s perhaps no better than a double, it’s received as a grave disappointment. That’s likely to be the case with “Onward,” a fable about estranged brothers who reconnect with one another—and the spirit of their late father—through the use of magic against a deadly ancient power. It’s not bad, but feels like the sort of thing that might have come out of any animation factory—in other words, not up to Pixar’s high standards.
The story is set in a world inhabited by elves and other unusual-looking critters, but the society itself is pretty earthlike, apart from peculiar place names, like the town of New Mushroomton. Though magic once dominated, it’s been pretty much replaced by science and technology that’s similar to our own, and is now relegated to the realm of fantasy.
Within this context the screenplay, which draws on the personal experiences of director-writer Dan Scanlon, focuses on the elfish Lightfoot brothers. The younger is Ian (voiced by Tom Holland), just turning sixteen—small, awkward, shy and embarrassed by his elder sibling Barley (Chris Pratt), a loud, brash slacker devoted to role-playing games like “Quests of Yore,” which’s he’s convinced captures the reality of the magical past, and drives around in a dilapidated van he’s christened Guinevere.
The boys live with their widowed mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who’s dating a stern centaur cop, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez But both of them are haunted by a yearning for their late father, whom Barley remembers only slightly and Ian not at all, having been born after his death. On Ian’s birthday Laurel gives them a gift from their father Wilden—a wizard’s staff with a magic gem that can, with the speaking of a proper spell, conjure back up Wilden for a day.
Naturally, the attempt to use the staff goes awry, the gem is shattered, and Wilden materializes only from the waist down. The boys compensate by using stuffing to shape a sort of top half, turning him into a slapstick figure constantly bumbling around in slapstick fashion.
The rest of the film consists of the odyssey Ian and Barley go on in Guinevere to secure a new gem so they can restore their father to wholeness before the day runs out; Ian insists they follow a “rational” route, while Barley wants to find inspiration in the games he plays. They encounter a succession of obstacles and dangers on the way, even as they’re pursued by Colt and his fellow cops, as well as by Laurel, who’s accompanied by Corey (Octavia Spencer), a manticore who’s become the “domesticated” owner of a restaurant where the boys stop in one of the episodes of their journey—but who, when push comes to shove, shows that she retains all her powers of old.
Among the other unusual figures that become part of Ian, Barley and half-Wilden’s trip (along with those of their pursuers) are a bunch of pixies, led by the bellicose Dewdrop (Grey Griffin), who have turned to motorcycles after losing the ability to fly, and a grumpy pawn shop owner (Tracey Ullman).
In this latter portion, the film becomes thoroughly episodic, with some segments faring better than others, and closes with big battle scenes. Naturally things turn sentimental at the close,. With the brothers dealing with their feelings not only for their dead father but also toward one another.
“Onward” is, of course, beautifully made from a technical perspective; one would expect nothing less from a Pixar product. The animation is first-rate and the camerawork by Sharon Calahan and Adam Habib no less impressive, as is Catherine Apple’s editing. The voice work is good, but apart from Pratt’s “bro-speak,” not terribly distinctive, with Holland in particular coming across as rather bland. The score by Mychael and Jeff Danna, however, is awfully bombastic.
Pixar might want the film’s title to suggest a further progression in the studio’s output, but in actuality “Onward” represents a regression, no doubt sincerely meant by Scanlon but formulaic and overly derivative of a smattering of earlier sources. It’s not unappealing on its own limited terms, but insufficiently imaginative and enchanting to transcend middling status among Pixar’s productions.