What to make of the post-Toy Story 3 Pixar? This animation studio was considered to be something of a pinnacle of studio filmmaking during the 2000s when they put out movies like Ratatouille and Wall-E the critics used to routinely insist that they deserved Best Picture Oscar nominations but in the following decade they’ve been viewed as something more akin to the MCU: a cog in the Disney machine putting out product that isn’t to be respected too much even when it’s pretty good. The main thing that’s often blamed on this decline is their increased interest in putting out sequels to their earlier films, and indeed, six of the ten movies they put out during that period were sequels of varying degrees of quality. But critics haven’t been terribly jazzed about most of the original movies they put out either. Brave was probably the first of several Pixar movies this decade that was met with a sort of respectful but not overly impressed response despite probably being better than most of what their competitors were putting out. Coco was better received, but it still wasn’t like it was in the old days, and The Good Dinosaur was pretty much dismissed outright. Inside Out was the exception, people did view that one as something of a classic but even then there was a bit of a ceiling. But are these movies really so much worse than the other movies? I would argue they aren’t, rather I feel like the hype levels are closer to what they should have been all along, but there is something a little odd about the way Pixar seems to get held to a higher standard than most other Hollywood animation studios and the mild reception that their new original film Onward is emblematic of this.
The world of Onward is based on a question I’ve long contemplated: what will it be like when the a high fantasy world of the kind in Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones discovers gunpowder, steam engines, and electricity and ends up being something more akin to the modern world but still filled with elves and dragons and the like. It’s an idea that was explored (by all accounts poorly) in the David Ayer film Bright but here we get a better realized version of such a place. The film is set in an unnamed country that used to be filled with knights and mages but the idea of “magic” was abandoned during a sort of industrial revolution and the place now looks like a modern American suburbia but populated entirely by various mythological creatures like centaurs, ogres, and pixies and with buildings that kind of reflect the world’s cultural origins. Our focus is on Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), a nightelf who has just turned sixteen and has the normal teenage problems of trying to fit in at school and being anxious about learning to drive. On the morning of his birthday his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) informs Ian and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) that their long dead father had left the two of them a gift to be opened when both of them are sixteen. This gift is a mage staff, which greatly excites Barley as he is an avid player of a historically based role playing game (essentially Dungeons and Dragons) and is a big believer in magic, much to everyone else’s disdain. The staff has apparently been set up to bring the father back to life for twenty four hours, but something goes wrong when they try to use it and all that’s brought back are the father’s legs, which walk around aimlessly. To complete the spell they’re going to have to find another rare crystal, and finding that will require them to go on a quest that will test their bond.
Early on it seemed like the main theme of Onward was going to be tradition versus technology and that “magic” would act as a sort of stand-in for any number of debates that go around about new ways of doing things: film vs. digital, physical media vs. streaming, or perhaps most pertinently computer animation vs. hand drawn. There is enough there to kind of make that work as a through line. Barley’s fanatical devotion to the ways of old is certainly shown to have its limits but there are legitimately some things magic can do which “the new ways” can’t and it shouldn’t be dismissed. Maybe a few too many things. Given everything they’re able to do on this journey with rudimentary wizardly it does somewhat beggar belief that this society would abandon it entirely and it might have made sense to show a few more of the downsides of the magic arts. But really this becomes something of a secondary theme as the film goes on as it ultimately becomes a lot more interested in the relationship between the two brothers and their feelings about having lost a father at a very young age, which I think is a bit of a mistake as that whole relationship is not quite as interesting as the movie seems to think it is.
Despite that I still found the sheer world-building here to be really charming. Like I said before, this idea of fantasy worlds getting modern technology has been on my mind for a while and it was really fun seeing that very notion get fleshed out in a movie like this. Like, the movie has a character who’s a straight-up manticore, but she runs a family restaurant for a living and uses her past exploits as a theme for it. I certainly find that amusing, and there’s a lot of stuff like that in the movie, to the point where I’d probably welcome a sequel to this just to explore the place even more. There was also fun to be had with the basic adventure that the characters go on here. I do normally frown at the way Pixar seems to turn almost all of their movies into adventure narratives, but given the motif here it does fit. That’s not to say every part of the narrative is completely novel and interesting as there are passages that feel more bland than others, but I mostly had fun with it and it really seems weird to me that the movie has not really seemed to catch on with critics and audiences. It hasn’t been the best marketed film and its title is not the best, but this reception generally seems to be indicative of the double standard that Pixar gets held to at times.
***1/2 out of Five