Between old classics like Toy Story and modern masterpieces like Coco, Pixar is notorious for its effortless ability to produce emotional animated hits that move audiences both young and old. Pixar’s newest film, Onward, seemed destined to join the studio classics, led by the voice talent of huge Marvel stars Chris Pratt and Tom Holland. Onward tells the story of two elf brothers who journey to bring back magic in a suburbanized fantasy setting. But for a tale of magic and quests, Onward’s Disney magic feels largely artificial, making for a mostly formulaic and predictable ride.
The plot follows Barley and Ian Lightfoot, a pair of brothers who seemingly have very little in common. Barley (Chris Pratt), the older of the two, is a fearless and eccentric 19-year-old homebody who spends his time playing Quests of Yore — the film’s equivalent to Dungeons and Dragons — and is obsessed with his world’s magic history.
On the other hand, Ian (Tom Holland) is cautious and pragmatic, struggling to find self-assurance in his mundane surroundings. Despite their differences, the one thing that unites the brothers is the absence of their father, who became ill and passed away before Ian was born.
On Ian’s 16th birthday, though, the two brothers receive a gift from their late father: a magical staff that grants them the ability to resurrect their dad for one last day. However, when the spell goes haywire, the boys are forced to embark on a fantastical journey to bring their dad back before sundown the next day.
Onward is structured like Disney’s Zootopia in the sense that it feels almost like a buddy cop flick at its heart; it has its protagonists following clues and uncovering secrets in a race against the clock. But more often than not, Onward lacks the creative and intellectual depth that Zootopia brings to the table, and as a result, the plot drags throughout its first and second acts.
That’s not to say there is nothing worthwhile about Onward. Of course, it does have moments that hit the target emotionally — and those beats of the film sing out above the rest, sure to tug on your heartstrings. The third act of the film is particularly moving, with a heartwarming message about family and siblinghood that will resonate with all audiences. But the reason the rest of the film suffers is that, apart from these scarce scenes, it is largely unmemorable.
At its best, Onward is a fun, lighthearted family movie that makes time for poignant themes. At its worst, its formulaic structure causes it to feel empty most of the time. Pixar is a studio that pays attention to culture, with movies like Coco and Ratatouille taking us on vivid experiences in unique locations across the globe. Even with films that feel more homely and universal, like Toy Story or Finding Nemo, Pixar is able to immerse us in magnificent new worlds that resonate within our own daily lives. However, Onward seems to follow a basic, step-by-step formula for a kid’s movie.
Onward is the first Disney movie to feature an explicitly queer character, which may have felt more like a triumph if this were not treated as a blink-and-you-miss-it moment. This is only another testament to the film’s lack of ambition. It’s a mess of bright, eye-grabbing colors that never quite fit together, and its plot feels very show-not-tell at times.
Rather than guiding its audience through an emotional experience, Onward seems to instruct the audience how we should feel, when to laugh and when to cry. Because of this, the story ends up feeling hollow and empty.
Overall, it feels like Pixar was afraid to take risks with Onward, and the result is a lackluster, forgettable film. While it does not sink to The Good Dinosaur’s level of mediocrity, it certainly does not make Pixar history and will get buried by future hits to come. Onward is a story about magic that suffers an absence of magic, but it is still a worthy family flick in theaters now.