When watching a Pixar film set in a land that is inhabited by mythical creatures in the “modern world” one would expect to see wacky, wild, and whimsical things within this world — from timely social themes, hilarious plays on social structures, and witty world-building that makes their imagined world feel justified and “real” for lack of a better word — something much like in the world of Zootopia (2016). Onward doesn’t feel like a step forward for Pixar, on the contrary, it feels like a sizable step backward.
In the world of Onward we follow two elves named Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) as these brothers embark on a quest to locate an ancient gem which will allow them to spend one day with their deceased father. Now, right off the bat, it’s clear this film contains a lot of complicated material to work with if it wants to truly sell its audience on the world it has built. This is why high fantasy movies are so rare, there’s lots to consider, lots to balance – and unfortunately here, it has not succeeded.
Very little is explained, fleshed-out, or has logical consistency in Onward– the plot feels as though it isn’t moving in a natural narrative direction, but rather, being shoved downhill at mach speed. Much of these tonal imbalance and rushed pace could’ve felt subdued if Onward contained interesting characters – but it seemingly falters here too. The issue lies with the relationship between Ian and his brother Barley, a relationship that is often more irritating than it is endearing. Ian as a leading role does not suffer from these issues, but Pratt’s role as Barley leaves little to be desired from him character.
Onward being a Pixar film, obviously it features quality technical competence across many aspects. It may not reach the heights of Toy Story 4 or Disney’s Frozen II in terms of detailed animation but still has that Pixar-esque touch in its visual storytelling. While the animation is well-rendered and has some neat little touches of detail, it doesn’t offer much else – the lack of world-building can be partly at fault for this.
The cartoonish fantastical characters had much potential to shine, but nothing truly unique. The landscapes feel very uninspired considering the fantastic opportunities there were to explore this new universe and the lore surrounding it. This is not what I have come to expect from an original Pixar film, which usually has expansive and detailed worlds that the character operates in. Unlike the previous Pixar films before it, Onward lacks the powerful score and sound design which fails to capture the essence of the film too. Many missteps here.
Devoid of that particular charm that makes Pixar films truly great; Onward feels more like an high-budget imitation artist more than it does a wondrous quest of magic and mystery. Onward isn’t a bad film, but the reputation that Pixar has set for itself raises the bar high for their entry level films. Director Dan Scanlon may have guided this film to be acceptable within the family film genre, but Onward is miles from that thing that makes a Pixar film, a Pixar film.