There is a lot wrong with Onward, Pixar’s highly uninspired 22nd feature film. Its most surprising fault, though, is its complete lack of detail. Sure, it remains present aesthetically, in its gorgeous photorealistic backdrops and in each carefully tousled hair atop the head of our protagonist, dorky teenage elf Ian (voiced by Tom Holland). But the world-building is spare to the point of obtuseness, which is saying something considering this is the same studio that gave us a believable world inhabited only by cars. In some magical, modern-day fantasy suburbia, elves have lost their ability to perform magic due to a laziness brought about from the advent of modern technology — at one point, even a washing machine is shown as a culprit. As is made clear in the film’s prologue, elves were able to create and wield magical spells that would allow them to complete any task with ease. So allow me to ask the obvious question: how the hell is a washing machine easier than magic when it comes to doing laundry? You are telling me the best that three screenwriters — including director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) — could come up with in regards to the elfin world’s loss of magic is a damn washing machine? The laziness here is off the charts, and extends to the central conceit of the story itself, which concerns the aforementioned Ian, a shy, introverted teenager embarrassed by his fantasy-obsessed older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) and still dealing with the loss of a father who died before he was born. Self-esteem issues? Check. Daddy issues? Check. On his 16th birthday, Ian is given a magical staff that allows him to conjure his dead father for one single day. The magic, however, proves too powerful — as does Barley’s stupidity — and they are unable to complete the full spell, leaving them with a father actualized as only a lower-half. Resultantly, the two brothers and half-dad are forced to go on a road trip in order to find the magical stone that will bring their father completely back, with only 24 hours to complete the task. Somehow a domesticated, capitalist-driven manticore and a horned-up centaur make their way into the proceedings, as does the brothers’ overly-protective mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a character confoundingly rendered with an ass that does not want to quit.
But the world-building is spare to the point of obtuseness, which is saying something considering this is the same studio that gave us a believable world inhabited only by cars.
I digress, but only because everything here is so very derivative of not only every other film in the Pixar stable, but every animated movie in the history of film, period. It doesn’t help that the major emotional beats are cribbed wholesale from both Up and Coco, re-defining a snake eating its own tail. It isn’t particularly funny, either, with Pratt returning to the lovable doofus well one-too-many times, and Holland simply being bland as hell; any chemistry between the two is non-existent. There are little things here and there to enjoy — some angry biker pixies garner an appreciative smile (the less said about their overall appearance, which is…problematic, the better), while the design of the dragon that appears at film’s end is simultaneously clever and adorable. Those hoping for a Dolittle-type ending due to the vocal reunion of Holland and Spencer will be left disappointed, though, as the dragon’s asshole here remains unfisted. Not that there isn’t equally unsettling stuff going on, most of it involving that poor half-dad, who can only communicate through toe-tapping. The filmmakers seem to think his predicament is hilarious, with a go-to gag being the brothers placing a fake torso and head on their old man and watching him flail around. Put this material in the hands of a filmmaker with an original voice, and I am all over it. Anything would be better than the bland, reheated pap being served by Pixar these past few years. Onward? More like Yawn-ward. That joke is better than this film.