If Onward were produced by any other major CG-animation studio (DreamWorks, Illumination, Blue Sky, etc.), it would be a major achievement. It’s sweet and funny and gorgeously animated, full of clever details in a richly imagined world. But from the geniuses at Pixar, Onward feels like a bit of a step down, especially coming less than a year after Pixar proved that even the fourth movie in a franchise (last year’s Toy Story 4) could be intelligently crafted and emotionally resonant. Director and co-writer Dan Scanlon previously helmed 2013’s similarly underwhelming Monsters University, and as with that likable but forgettable prequel, Onward is perfectly pleasant to watch, making easy but amusing jokes by mixing two incongruous elements into one oddball setting.
Here, that’s the combination of a fantasy world right out of The Lord of the Rings or Dungeons & Dragons with the modern suburban world of strip malls and housing developments. As the prologue explains, this world was once your typical sword-and-sorcery setting, full of wizards and knights and mystical creatures, and infused with magic. But modern technology eventually superseded magic, and years later, the elves, centaurs, sprites and other races all live in houses full of electric appliances, drive cars and communicate via cell phones. When slacker elf Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Chris Pratt) plays a D&D-style tabletop roleplaying game, it’s a recreation of actual history.
Barley is obsessed with bringing back the old ways, but his awkward teenage younger brother Ian (Tom Holland) is embarrassed by Barley’s enthusiasm for spells and quests. On Ian’s 16th birthday, the brothers’ mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives them a present left by their late father Wilden and kept hidden away since his passing, before Ian was born. It turns out to be a wizard’s staff with a magical stone and instructions for a spell that will bring Wilden back to life for a single day. Of course both brothers are eager to see their dad, and when the spell fizzles out halfway (leaving Wilden as a pair of legs with no head or torso), Barley finally has his chance to embark on a quest.
Without Laurel’s knowledge or approval, and with only Barley’s roleplaying game as their guide, the brothers set out to find a new gem so they can complete the spell and enjoy the remaining time with their dad (the clock starts ticking as soon as his legs appear). Although both brothers are focused on getting bonding time with Wilden, the movie is really about the connection between brothers, and specifically about Ian learning to appreciate Barley, for all his goofy, unrestrained exuberance. That emotional core isn’t entirely convincing, although Scanlon was inspired by his relationship with his own brother, and the stakes don’t feel particularly urgent. It’s hard to care about the characters’ relationship with a family member who’s only depicted as a mute, clumsy pair of legs, being led around on a leash. Wilden feels more like an unruly pet than a beloved parent.
As a comedic adventure story, though, Onward is a lot of fun, from the cute ways that Scanlon integrates modern conveniences with classic fantasy elements (the fast food restaurant that serves “second breakfast,” unicorns as raccoon-like pests eating trash), to the fast-paced chases and moments of peril. The brothers’ quest starts at one of those rowdy fantasy-world taverns that has been transformed into a family-friendly restaurant, where the once-fierce manticore owner (Octavia Spencer) now goes by Corey and serves up mozzarella sticks. Laurel recruits Corey to help track her sons down, and their part of the narrative is never quite as compelling, and sometimes distracts from the brotherly bonding that anchors the story.
Even if the family reconciliation doesn’t amount to much, Onward still has plenty of exciting, effective set pieces, especially a finale that involves a dragon-like creature cobbled together from pieces of Ian’s high school building. As always, the animation is stunning, from the character design down to the tiniest minutiae. Onward is lovely family entertainment that goes down easy, but from Pixar, that qualifies as a disappointment.