Over the last decade, Pixar has added a new trick to its considerable list of talents: the missable blockbuster. A truly bad Pixar movie is still extremely rare, but a serviceable one that doesn’t necessarily feel like an event? They’re now a part of the studio’s repertoire, even if they feel odd every time. Onward is the latest and strangest of these: a Pixar movie that doesn’t quite look like a Pixar movie, even though it almost feels like one.
Perhaps part of the problem is that Onward is both incredibly strange and rather sweet, but it only half-commits to either feeling. In Onward, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) Lightfoot are elf brothers in a world that’s kind of like ours but inhabited by fantasy creatures like centaurs and unicorns. There used to be magic in this world, the prologue explains, but technology came along, and that was much easier. So people abandoned magic, and magic went away.
The plot begins in earnest on Ian’s 16th birthday, which is when his late father arranged for him and his older brother to get a gift he left behind for them: a wizard staff and a spell that would let him return to the land of the living for one day to see how much they’ve grown. The spell, however, goes awry and only brings half of their father back — the lower half. Now, the brothers have 24 hours to find a gem they need to complete the spell and spend a little time with their father, bringing his disembodied legs around with them. To make this easier, they attach a stuffed torso to his glowing waist and lead him along with a leash.
Yeah, it’s hard to believe, but Onward is 100 percent Weekend at Bernie’s for kids. It is impossible to get over this, and that the filmmakers did this is funnier than most of the actual jokes in the movie. If Onward leaned into this, it might have been the best comedy Pixar has ever made. Instead, it’s more interested in typical Disney / Pixar story beats and digging into the relationship between Ian and Barley.
That’s not a bad impulse; while the Lightfoot brothers aren’t the most compelling leads, they’ve got an interesting dynamic. Barley is a bit of a burnout who loves power metal and tabletop roleplaying games. (In Onward, it’s up for debate whether fantasy RPGs are fact or fiction.) Ian, meanwhile, is mostly defined by being nervous, wanting friends, and embarrassment over his older brother. Barley knows all about magic, yet he can’t use the staff their father left them. Ian, on the other hand, has the gift but doesn’t know the first thing about casting spells.
As they go on their quest together, Ian and Barley learn to trust and respect each other, while each comes to understand the ways the other has learned to cope with their father’s death. It’s a tale that’s a bit more emotionally complex than a lot of movies made by Pixar and its imitators, but it’s also one that doesn’t quite land because their story is anchored to a plot that isn’t terribly memorable.
Despite its mashup setting, Onward doesn’t ever feel quite magical. It’s a world built purely to facilitate the plot and some jokes, not a window into another place you want to fall into, like Coco or Inside Out. The gags are fine — good enough to delight children and elicit a chuckle from adults — but very little feels distinct and unique to this film. This stings a bit because the movie is almost there. Again, it’s got a Weekend at Bernie’s-style premise, and the movie’s big climax has a sight gag so off-kilter it becomes one of the best jokes in the movie.
It’s all earnest enough to work, delivered with a sincerity that makes it hard to say anything about it is really bad. It’s fine. A perfectly watchable film that could have been great if it, like its protagonist, remembered that the secret to magic is really believing in the wild thing you’re about to do.