Throughout the years, Pixar has given us a slew of films so great, that calling em ‘some of the finest films in all of animation’ may come off as derogatory. Something akin to saying “you’re beautiful, for a Malaysian.” The likes of Toy Story, Inside Out, Toy Story 2, The Incredibles, Toy Story 3, Wall-E, Toy Story 4 — sorry, couldn’t resist — are films that both embody and transcend their form. They’re bloody great films, period.
But Pixar’s greatness is also its wretched curse. We expect a certain brand of excellence from the studio. We expect a certain level of inspired filmmaking. We expect iconic characters whose names and spirits will be etched into our souls and the pop-cultural zeitgeist for years to come. Anything less than that and we’ll likely leave the cinema feeling disappointed. Disney-Pixar’s latest offering left me feeling exactly that: Disappointed.
But don’t mistake ‘disappointed’ for ‘lousy.’ Onward is a lot of fun! In fact, the film’s opening stretch is rather enchanting. “Long ago, the world was full of wonder.” In a sequence that reminded me of the opening in How to Train Your Dragon, we see winged unicorns zipping across the screen and Merpeople in a vast lake. Magic wasn’t an easy trick to master, though, so wizards were simply the coolest beings. But over time, people became less and less interested in magic. Why would anybody struggle and practice how to create light with a wooden staff if you can just flick a switch? In the present, magic has all but vanished. Centaurs don’t gallop, they drive, and unicorns are seen as neighbourhood pests. It’s funny.
On his 16th birthday, Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) receives a letter and a package from his now-dead father. Inside the package lies a staff. According to the letter, when paired with a phoenix gem and used properly, Ian would be able to bring his father back to life for a few minutes. And so, the pragmatic, ‘I-just-want-to-be-a-normal-teenager’ Ian teams up with his bumbling, RPG loving, magic-believing older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt) and set out on a quest in search for the phoenix gem.
I love how writers Jason Headley, Keith Bunin and Dan Scanlon made Ian, the non-believer, the one with the ability to conjure magic, while Barley who lives and breathes magic is — to use Harry Potter lingo — a muggle. But Barley isn’t jealous of Ian. This isn’t that story. He’s genuinely excited for his younger brother.
There are other bits of writing to love as well. Despite never having met his father, Ian looks up to him. When he grows up, he wants to be like his dad. He aspires to be the man he’s heard about from folks around his neighbourhood. To him, just like it is to most sons, his father is the most badass person on the planet. He would give anything to meet his dad. To ask his dad if he’s proud of him. So when the opportunity actually presents itself, you understand Ian’s desperation. In a scene that will stand amongst Pixar’s most emotionally poignant moments, a scene that will stand the test of time, we see the boys dance with their half-bodied father. It was at this exact moment where I got dust in my eyes.
There’s also the ending which reshapes the entire movie that you’ve just watched. It’s the kind of writing you’ve come to expect from Pixar. A profound twist almost as impactful as the sadness one in Inside Out.
It’s a shame that the journey towards this fantastic moment isn’t as inspiring. The writing isn’t as spellbinding as the visuals, which as always is incredible. The adventure is generic. Yes, you get car chase sequences and sword-wielding Manticores, but where’s the deeper layer we’re so used to from Pixar that provokes the thoughts of the adults sitting in the theatre?
Thinking about it, Onward feels more like a Disney animated film than a Pixar one. Here’s the thing, while the general premises of Disney animated films (i.e. Moana and Frozen) may lack the depth of an Inside Out, they’re often bolstered by spine-chilling musical numbers and overflowing with broad but magnificent emotional beats. The journeys are often filled with a sense of wonder and discovery. Onward does not. Perhaps it’s because apart from the stellar prologue, the movie takes place mostly in the present where most people don’t believe in or use magic, yet there weren’t enough smart visual gags and ironic humour pointing to the fact. Maybe it could’ve used a heart-thumping musical number or two. That said, Onward is still a joy to watch. It’s certainly not Inside Out, but it sure as hell ain’t Cars 2 either.