There’s nothing terribly wrong with Onward, the latest animated film from Pixar. It’s…nice? The movie’s well put together, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and features an appealing voice cast (Spider-Man and Star-Lord themselves, Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, respectively, co-star). But, while it has a neat central premise, it’s lacking something. It’s listless. It’s as generic as its title (me, at the screening: “Hi, I’m here for the screening of, ummmm, Inward? Upward? Over There?” Bored employee: “Theater 10”.)
Onward takes place in a fantasyland complete with elves, dragons, and wizards. There’s a twist, of course; it’s a contemporary world with gleaming high rises and modern conveniences. Magic was abandoned long ago since it was elusive and hard to control (nevertheless, the film’s intrepid hero masters it in less than 24 hours. Go figure). Elements of the former world still remain. The suburban homes, for instance, are giant mushrooms. I guess even magical beings can’t quite shake the past.
With appropriately squeaky pubescence, Holland voices that earlier mentioned intrepid hero, Ian Lightfoot (no relation to Gordon, sadly), an awkward, teenage elf. He lives in one of those giant mushrooms with his mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), his loser-ish brother, Barley (Pratt), and step-dad, a mid-western accented centaur sheriff. On his 16th birthday, Ian’s presented with a gift left by his long-departed father to be opened on that momentous occasion. Turns out Ian’s dad was a wizard and bequeathed his son a magic staff and a spell to bring his father back to life for 24 hours so he can see how his children have grown up. Inexperienced in the ways of magic, Ian manages to bring back his father’s legs, but the gem powering the staff explodes before he can finish the spell. Barley, a metal stoner (only implied, this is Disney after all), well versed in myth and lore–or simply history here–convinces Ian there’s another gem they can find to finish the spell. The duo (…and a half, their father’s sentient legs join them), embark on a quest to find their prize hidden across a land inhabited equally by the magical and the mundane and bring back the father the brothers barely knew.
It’s a great setup that has potential for big laughs and spectacle. And while there is a little of both, the movie never quite takes off in either department. A giant green square of gelatin that dissolves anything it envelopes and a cleverly designed monster in the finale make memorable appearances, but otherwise the movie just jumps from one action sequence to another which are noisier than they are imaginative.
The character arcs and the growth of Ian and Barley’s relationship are handled well, in that made-by-a-committee kind of way. The pieces fall neatly into place. Too neatly. The script would get an A+ in a screenwriting class for format, but anybody looking for surprise or unpredictability should look elsewhere. At least it’s not a mess, and families, the true target audience of this movie, should be happy with it.
But there are simply too many missed opportunities, like the score by Jeff and Mychael Danna. It’s fine, appropriate for the most part, grand and comical. But there are moments where Barley puts on his music (on cassette of course, in his beat up van christened Guinevere, complete with painted unicorns posed dramatically on its sides) to soundtrack the film. It’s supposed to be fantasyland metal, but all we get are cheap, flat guitar riffs that would embarrass even the slightest hair metal band from the ‘80s. A chance to have some fun and kick ass at the same time is missed. Imagine what could have been with fat, pummeling guitar riffs mixed with hilarious, world specific, fantasy lyrics on top.
I know, sounds like nitpicking, but that music is indicative of the movie as a whole. Just good enough. And, yeah, Onward is good enough to get by, but for a story about the fantastical, it’s simply missing a bit of magic.