Coming up this November will be the quarter century mark of the release of Toy Story (1995), which was the birth of Disney/Pixar (though Pixar had done some of the animated shorts beforehand). Having seen all but two of their full length films (2015’s The Good Dinosaur and 2017’s Cars 3 got past my radar), the quality of the films of Disney/Pixar have nearly always been able to exceed all expectations, despite how high they may have been. With very few “duds” to their credit (most of the non-Toy Story sequels and Brave), the combined duo shows no sign of stopping, even if they make films of lesser quality. Which, sadly, brings us to Onward.
The brief history of magical creatures states that magic has been nearly lost and almost forgotten. While magic once thrived, scientific discovery had replaced it. Still, there are a few who still believe it exists, mainly the over eager Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt). After the death of his magic loving dad (because this is Disney, so the one parent rule is almost always in effect), he tries his darndest to be somewhat of an influence to his younger teenage brother Ian (Tom Holland).
As the film begins on his 16th birthday, the somewhat introverted Ian tries to stay somewhat distant from his much more extroverted older brother. That is, until his mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in her second Disney/Pixar film since A Bug’s Life) reveals a present to be given to both her sons when they turned sixteen. It is a staff, which will be able to bring there dad back (with the help of a rare phoenix stone their dad gave them as well) for one day. Unfortunately, trouble with the spell brews (pun intended?), and only the legs of their dad appear. They must then set forth on a quest to find another phoenix stone if they wish to see their whole dad before the 24 hour spell is over. Along the way in his (somewhat) trusty van Gwinivere, Barley passes on his knowledge of magic to his brother (who we discover is the one with magical abilities).
Compared to other films in the Pixar canon, there seems to be fewer supporting characters that stick out. The ones that do include a manticore (Octavia Spencer), Laurel’s new boyfriend cop, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), and some hard headed (and often funny) motorcycle pixies. And yes, we still get the Disney/Pixar treasured voice of John Ratzenberger, but it was so brief I admit I missed it.
There is also one (very minor) character, Officer Spector (Lena Waithe), who is officially the first openly gay character in a Disney/Pixar film. Sadly, this is more politicized than memorable. If you are going to include a homosexual character (in general, not just in animation), make it needed in the story itself. If Spector had not mentioned she was gay (though she does not use those exact words), I doubt it would make any difference to the outcome of the film.
The idea of being able to spend time with a dead loved one is indeed moving, but the way they established it seems just…awkward. I can understand the filmmakers wanting to add a twist of some kind, but just the legs? Yes, they find a way to communicate (somewhat) with them, but it just seems not as original or daring an idea that would expect from the studio.
Speaking of originality, when Disney/Pixar is at the top of their game, they give us worlds of endless possibilities. They have created countless universes with toys, bugs, monsters, cars, superheroes (even before the MCU), robots, emotions (!), and rats in the kitchen. Very few studios can say they have done something like that (save for Studio Ghibli).
That said, the universe of the creatures of Onward seems like it is from the minor leagues. Through out the film, I seriously had to remind myself I was watching a Disney/Pixar film, and not something from a lesser quality studio (I won’t name examples, but even the heads of other studios have to admit they have to almost always compete with Disney/Pixar).
Parents, the film is okay for kids provided you plan to have a conversation about the lesbian character, but I do admit I think the humor for the adults will be harder to find than it was in other Disney/Pixar films.
The deeper issues with being able to talk to a deceased family member did hit me at times (having lost my own dad a little less than a decade ago), but not as much as it could have. Consider the other great touching moments in the history of Disney/Pixar: Andy saying goodbye to his toys, WALL-E not recognizing EVE, Boo realizing (at the time) she won’t see Sully again, Miguel singing to Coco, the goodbye at the end of Toy Story 4, and, of course, the first ten minutes of Up. I would argue these (as well as moments which would produce “happy tears”) are groundbreaking moments for a child’s life as a movie goer (and some adults as well).
Disney/Pixar will, I am confident, still produce classics in the years to come (they have another film this year called Soul, which does look promising), but they need to remember to go Onward before going upward.