Boil down Pixar’s brand to a word, and that word is “purpose.” Every detail in every Pixar movie, from the “Toy Story” franchise to “Up” to “Inside Out,” has an intention, a grander design—the images and ideas that go into these pictures only after long, careful deliberation to determine whether they make artistic sense and facilitate their motifs. “Onward,” the studio’s latest, a fantasy tale with daddy abandonment issues coursing through its veins, should enjoy the same consideration, but on every level reads unlike a Pixar production and more like a rejected script dug out of the bin behind a lesser studio. Nothing about the film feels purposeful, or at least not meant for a significant purpose.
“Onward,” directed by Dan Scanlon (“Monsters University”), slaps every conceivable genre cliché onto the page, plus a healthy dose of nerd pandering; the line between the two, of course, is razor-thin, so the worst clichés tend to pander while signaling creative insecurity. This is a deeply unassured movie. Instead of taking a chance on making something new, Scanlon, who co-wrote the screenplay along with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, and his animators have made something that seems tailored to delight “Dungeons & Dragons” aficionados while also appealing to parents who raised their kids on “Shrek.” In fantasy, where imagination is the only meaningful limit to storytelling, “something new” shouldn’t be unobtainable. It should be the norm.
But pop culture’s grasp on fantasy usually falls somewhere between ‘D&D’ and “The Hobbit,” and “Onward” submits to these easy conventions: Characters square off with gelatinous blobs, dragons, and other creatures in a world where the popular soft drink is Mountain Doom and races ranging from centaurs to elves to fairies comprise the citizenry of New Mushroomton. There’s nothing “new” about any of this. It’s a CGI skin slapped over “Goonies” and other ’80s relics clung to by millennials and Gen Xers. The film’s two modern inventions are co-stars Chris Pratt and Tom Holland, playing brothers Barley and Ian Lightfoot. Barley’s a beefcake. Ian’s a twerp. But Barley, long graduated from high school, takes up real estate on his mother’s couch while Ian has comparably more ambition.
Barley’s a loser addicted to the movie’s ‘D&D’ analog, “Quests of Yore,” which is a much nicer way of saying he’s hopelessly nostalgic for an era he didn’t live through. He likes to remind whoever’s in earshot (usually Ian) that the game is historically accurate because once upon a time, magic was real, until people who couldn’t toss a fireball to save their lives invented electricity, and with that, the world’s magic fizzled out. Barley’s a “make New Mushroomton great again” kind of guy. But his and Ian’s dad was, too. In fact, before his untimely passing, he crafted a spell that will conjure him back to life for 24 hours to let his sons meet him. It’s Ian’s 16th birthday. Spellcasting is his present. So he tries, and half-succeeds, summoning Dad from his toes to his waistband. To complete the enchantment, Ian and Barley must embark on an epic rambling quest, on which they bond as siblings learn valuable truths about the
human elven condition.
The problem with “Onward” isn’t emotional or thematic. In fact, the film’s climax hits an all-time high on the feelings scale, hinging on a selfless act in the same tier as the Giant’s sacrifice in Warner Bros.’ “The Iron Giant,” a deed so unimaginably brave that to witness it without bursting into tears is to concede soullessness. No, the problem with “Onward” is that its pieces are hoary and worn down. Anybody who’s enjoyed a ‘D&D’ campaign has run through a scenario exactly like this before, down to interpreting clues, dodging traps, meeting NPCs (à la Corey, a stressed-out manticore voiced by Octavia Spencer, whose adventuring days have led her to run a TGI Fridays in the middle of nowhere), and fighting a dragon because even with a script based around the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual, Scanlon couldn’t settle on a monster more unique than a dragon. Granted, dragons rule. Grant also that there’s a whole menagerie for “Onward” to choose from, and choosing a dragon is the safe option.
And if “purpose” is Pixar’s brand, then “safe” is “Onward’s” aesthetic. Dress up familiar character types in fantasy clothes, build a town and style it with fantasy flourishes and cheesy references to pre-existing IP, and call it a movie. Fantasy can be so much more than product made in homage to Gygax and Tolkien. “Onward” didn’t need to be that, per se—it is, after all, for kids—but it should have at least strived for surface originality to complement its core sentiments. Maybe the film will squeeze a tear or two from your eye. What it won’t do is give you a reason to remember when, or why. [C-]