Onward, the latest animated adventure from the studio that seemingly can do no wrong, Pixar, kinda does. It is a mediocre effort overall, but still a further reminder of the studio’s status as a master heartstring-tugger. In the end, that’s where the studio excels and the way Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley and Keith Bunin’s story slyly transforms into a celebration of a brotherly bond when the entire plot revolves around resurrecting the boys’ father for 24 hours is quite tender and sweet. The decision to bring the dad back for a mere minute that we observe from a distance is also pretty surprising on its own, because it seems like a case of one guaranteed emotional moment being traded for a trickier one. It’s a calculated risk, but one that pays off well.
But everything up until those nicely touching bits involving the shy Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland, “Spider-Man: Far From Home”) revelation and his older buffoonish brother Barley’s (voiced by Chris Pratt, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”) actual goodbye fell quite flat for me.
The prologue which involves the elf boys, who never knew their father, getting a magical resurrection staff from their mother (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Veep” TV series) that neither can fully use because magic has been pushed aside for technology was clumsily dull and the general world-building never seemed to expand beyond what was long-ago established in the teaser trailer. Veteran Pixar director Dan Scanlon (“Monsters University”), borrowing plot inspiration from his own life, delivers a bunch of Dungeon and Dragons fantasy creatures like elves, cyclopses, trolls, pixies, manticores and centaurs living regular daily lives in cities very much like our own and that’s about it. That’s the joke — mundane fantasy creatures have replaced mundane humans. There’s nothing more to any of it and the creatures themselves aren’t particularly intriguing or memorable. The Manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer, “The Shape of Water”) used to be a warrior, but now it’s running a family-friendly restaurant, and oh now it’s suddenly a dangerous warrior again. Except that all it does is spew exposition (a curse) and procure a MacGuffin (a sword) and then go for a drive.
It all felt pretty half-assed, like very few actions in the movie had any real effect. I guess it’s pretty standard for Pixar movies to focus on just two main characters with a group of supporting players offering comic relief, though. I’m thinking about “Toy Story,” “Inside Out,” “Coco,” “Ratatouille,” “Wall-E, “Up” . . . Okay, yeah, it’s most definitely a pattern. In the case of Onward, it just seemed like there was space to do a whole lot more with the world and come up with a more imaginative quest, if not deliver it in a more original manner.
I didn’t find that any of the jokes landed particularly well, either, which hurt the movie since it’s mostly a goofy, doofus-y adventure road trip with the blue-haired bros rolling into one set-piece after another in search of a new magical gem to top their staff. I’d say it joins “Ratatouille” as the least funny movie of the Pixar canon, but I bet I won’t find many that agree with me about that. Still, the animation is above reproach (is that even a Pixar production aspect to take note of anymore?) and when Onward goes for the heart, it mostly hits its target, so I guess it more or less accomplishes its goal.