Even when armed with a magical roster of centaurs, unicorns, goblins and all of the other fascinating creatures that make up the fantasies of every child in the world, the Disney-Pixar powerhouse’s newest endeavor “Onward” still misses the mark.
In general, the film’s one hour and 45 minute runtime feels rather brief, as if there isn’t sufficient time to explore the story world. However, at the very beginning, “Onward” still takes the liberty to begin with a flash of exposition that serves as a supposed primer for the whimsical world that we are about to enter. Explicitly described here is that the world used to be filled to brim with breathtaking spells and sweeping adventure. But, as technology and city life advanced, magic was left behind by the typically wondrous creatures, and a dull lifestyle resembling the human world (driving lessons and all) was favored instead.
That could have been a great setup for a bit of light, reflexive commentary on the franchise-obsessed Pixar company losing its own original brand of magic throughout the years, but nothing so creative ensues. The film focuses on a family of elves: lanky and socially awkward Ian (Tom Holland), his overbearing, slacker older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) and their widowed mother Laurel ( Julia Louis-Dreyfus). On Ian’s 16th birthday, the brothers receive a package from their late father containing a rare gem and scepter that will allow them to bring him back to life for 24 hours. Ian, uncertain of his own nascent magical powers, casts only half the spell, summoning his father’s khaki-clad legs. At Barley’s insistence, the two set out to find a second gemstone to replicate the spell before the day is up while their mother follows close behind, knowing that retrieving the gemstone could release a vicious curse.
Though this premise seems like the perfect fodder for supernatural backdrops and the revelation of idiosyncratic character details in iconic Disney fashion, the aesthetic of this film unfortunately remains rather pedestrian throughout. While it’s still occasionally adorable to see creatures of the fantasy canon functioning in an uncannily human way, these particular characters don’t stick out in the same awe-inspiring way as those out of the “Monsters Inc.” or even the “Cars” franchises do. A lot of aspects don’t seem particularly original here, as the character designs are bland in comparison to the studio’s gold standard, and fall into easy archetypes audiences have seen time and time again. It only emphasizes the fact that this film simply doesn’t inspire the same excitement that a children’s fantasy-adventure movie could and should. This repeated resistance to creative risks across the board transforms Pixar’s much anticipated attempt at creating something original in the wake of “Coco” into a major disappointment.
However, despite a lot of the film’s underdeveloped faults, there are a handful of shining moments that certainly do not fail to entertain. For example, a pivotal chase scene that sees the two brothers fleeing a tiny pixie biker gang, all while Barley chaotically attempts to help Ian merge on the freeway for the first time. Though at times the film’s repeated thematic overtones feel rundown after years of watching Disney, sequences like this, where “Onward” allows for the sympathetic dynamic between the two brothers to shine in a hilarious way, reflect how air-tight parts of the Disney formula really are. Disney’s use of traditional elements like the sappy family montage to tug at the heartstrings brings this disjointed film back to the sugary-sweet core of the story is as admittedly admirable as it is effective, making some of the main takeaways of this film way more heartfelt.
“Onward” attempts an original story and loses steam and substance throughout its half-baked run time, but its most genuine moments rise to the surface. Ironically, its emphasis on camaraderie and the amusement found in urban life give panging little reminders of the things we don’t necessarily have access to at the moment. That alone may make this silly, low-stakes fairytale into something a lot of us really need right now.
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