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In Onward, "Pixar Magic" Sputters More Than It Sparkles

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In <i>Onward</i>, "Pixar Magic" Sputters More Than It Sparkles

1. For its interminable, meandering first half, Onward somehow compiles the worst parts of even the best Pixar movies. It’s aggressively high-concept, albeit strained this time, positing what would happen if magical creatures were dulled by generations of capitalism into losing everything magical about them. (Turns out: It makes them dull!) It features yet another protagonist who feels displaced from their home and yearns for a past they feel deprived of. (Usually a lost family member: here, a father.) Worst, it is yet another Let’s Go On A Quest! plot, a Pixar trope so exhausted and hoary that you always appreciate that a character at last just blurts out, “Let’s Go On A Quest!” It is dispiriting, during an era when the very meaning of the Pixar brand is being diluted by sequels and overarching corporate strategies, to see a movie that seems cobbled together from various other Pixar films, a reliance on a formula from a company that once rewrote all the rules themselves.

2. It’s a relief, then, that Onward does ultimately right itself and, against all odds, still provide a signature Pixar moment or two, even improbably jerking a few tears here or there. That speaks to an almost pathological ability to find the beating heart of any story, even if, as is the case here, it’s surrounded by a lot of “irreverent” bells and whistles that feel less organic than “desperately clung to” as if to remind us, “Look, look, still Pixar!” But it also is a result of what appears, at least in its initial stages, to be a deeply personal project for director and co-writer Dan Scanlon. Scanlon is a Pixar lifer, and thus a project of this magnitude feels like the result of a lifetime of hard work and dedication. But it also feels like the result of someone who has learned long ago the compromises you have to make. That Pixar has become more about the compromises rather than the passion of the thing sums up exactly why Onward, for all its virtues, is reason to worry.

3. That initial concept, that the magical world has turned all suburban, is not a particularly exciting one and one in fact that works backwards; we find ourselves watching out for fantastical things that become boring, rather than the other way around. (In a too-typical gag, a stop sign features the word “HALT.”) The story follows a young elf named Ian (Tom Holland), who, on his 16th birthday, learns that his father, who died before he was born, has cast a magical spell so that he may spend one day with Ian and his older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt). The spell ends up interrupted, to the point that the father only halfway returns … as a pair of khakis. Ian and Barley then (all together now) Go On A Quest to find an ancient stone that will return his top half and allow them to spend one final day with their dad.

4. This leads them to all sorts of familiar scenarios, and it’s a little bit surprising how little fun the film has with the concept. Basically, Ian and Barley run through a typical suburban world, except rather than people having rote jobs and shopping in an empty suburban landscape, it’s elves and demons and centaurs. The movie’s jokes about this are mostly lame and, perhaps most disturbingly, not particularly differentiated from the jokes you’d see in, say, an Illumination film. The movie looks great, but there’s nothing particularly special about it. For about 45 minutes, it is unquestionably the most dispiriting Pixar movie of all, even Cars 3. It feels like no one bothered trying. It feels like Pixar had a movie due, so it just made one.

5. It’s a relief, then, that the movie pulls itself out of the fire as it speeds toward its conclusion, revealing that the whole “quest” notion was an extended upending of the idea that “it’s not about the journey, it’s the destination.” It lands in an emotional place in a very Pixar way, and it turns out what we were moving toward the whole time was a very different landing spot than we could have anticipated. It feels generous, with a wisdom that you find yourself wishing the rest of the movie had shown. Onward has sections where you worry that it’s a disaster, but it turns out to have more emotional oomph than initially apparent. (It also features the most likable Chris Pratt performance since Parks & Recreation, which goes a long way.) That turns out to be enough, but just barely. Pixar can still, in the end, pull a rabbit out of its hat at the last second. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that a lot of the old tricks aren’t having the same effects anymore.

Grade: B-

Director: Dan Scanlon
Writer: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin
Starring: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodriguez
Release Date: March 6, 2020


Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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