Jul. 14, 2017. The Anaheim Convention Center. Then-Pixar Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter took the stage at the D23 Expo — Disney’s biannual fan convention (think Comic Con but with more Mickey Mouse) — to unveil Disney-Pixar’s most far-off animated feature, officially titled “The Untitled Pixar Film That Takes You To A Suburban Fantasy World.” Some thought it odd that Disney-Pixar announced the film so early on. All they had was some concept art, a few sentences on the plot, and an idea for a cool setting. Lasseter probably had grocery receipts lying around with more creative content.
One look at the Pixar canon reveals, however, that the choice is not necessarily surprising. Monster cities powered by children’s screams. Anthropomorphic animal metropoles with rabbit police officers and gazelle pop stars. Sentient, talking cars and fish and toys and physical manifestations of emotions. Pixar movies often rely heavily on the premise; a particularly fresh, well-crafted world can make or break the movie. “Onward” is no different.
The suburban fantasy world is pulled off masterfully, with the creative flair and attention to detail typical of Disney. Skyscrapers are subtly shaped into castle turrets. Little dragons run around the house knocking over flower pots. The Manticore has to worry about paying rent on her tavern. No design element is left untouched, yet everything manages to retain its distinctively suburban DNA. Strip malls are still strip malls. Gas stations are still gas stations. It’s not a new world that director Dan Scanlon creates — it’s our world, just with different, more fantastical origins.
“In times of old, the world was full of wonder — and magic. But, times change,” begins the opening narration. It is in these changed, magic-less times that we meet 16-year-old Iandore “Ian” Lightfoot (Tom Holland) and his older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt). After a spell to bring back their deceased father for a single day goes awry, the two brothers (and their father’s reanimated, disembodied legs) embark upon a quest for a Phoenix Gem to bring back his top half so that they can finally meet their father.
The film centers around the relationship between Ian and Barley, both of whom are hardly fresh, well-rounded characters. Ian is the classic timid, anxious teenager who gets bullied in class and can’t work up the courage to invite “friends” to his birthday party. Barley is his foil of an older brother — staying home on, as their mother describes, “the world’s longest gap year” — who, with his obsession with magic and unicorn-spray-painted van, never fails to embarrass Ian.
As the quest progresses, the tension between the two intensifies (to no one’s surprise), and the emotional focus shifts from their quest to bring back their father to their strained fraternal relationship. The plot does its best to augment this tension; it tries to pull off a “Zootopia”-level twist to get an “Up”-level emotional payoff, but the result falls short. The big, climactic, Disney-trademarked catharsis doesn’t land quite right; the viewer is left thinking, “This is where I should be crying, but I don’t really feel like doing it.” The first half of the movie is partially to blame. Expositional story beats meant to set up emotional stakes are painfully obvious. The frame lingers on Ian jotting down goals in a notepad then dejectedly crossing them out, a valiant but hackneyed effort to signal Ian’s emotional state.
The other characters don’t do much to fill in the gap left by our protagonists, either. Corey the Manticore (Octavia Spencer) is little more than a plot device. Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez) just sort of lingers around the edges of the story (but still undergoes an inexplicable transformation by the end). The exception is their mother, exercise-enthusiast Laurel Lightfoot (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who seems to be carrying the movie on her (probably very toned) shoulders — chasing after her kids in a series of surprisingly entertaining secondary scenes and, in a pleasant departure from convention, playing a big role in the final climactic battle.
“Onward” is by no means a bad film. At this point, it’s questionable whether Disney-Pixar is capable of producing one. The score, composed by Mychael and Jeff Danna (“The Good Dinosaur,” “Life of Pi”), is fittingly epic and sweeping. The animation, as always, is spectacular; a scene where light flowing in from a window illuminates floating dust particles — yes, individual dust particles — stands out, in particular. The premise, the setting, the world and world-building are, again, wonderfully imaginative.
Yet the lack of emotional clarity lingers. Scanlon was inspired to direct this film by his own father’s death when he was a kid, and for him, the story likely holds significant emotional impact. And as touching as that is, the fact remains — for the unacquainted viewer, this impact must be earned. “Onward” felt confused, sentimental without having anything in particular to be sentimental about, and for that, it will serve as a reminder that even the coolest ideas have their limits.
—Staff writer Kalos K. Chu can be reached at email@example.com.