It’s hard to believe that Pixar Animation Studios has been around for a decade and a half. What’s more surprising is how rich its legacy has become in that short of a time.
Sporting four franchises, countless creative originals and some of the most detailed computer animation of all time, Pixar has set an example for animated features across entertainment.
The bar the company has set is both a blessing and a curse. Because Pixar has created such beloved, innovative and boundary-pushing films, each subsequent entry has that much more pressure to succeed in strides in animation and originality.
And in its history, the studio has had major hits and near misses. With Inside Out, the studio was able to accomplish new feats in animation and tell a story from one of the most unique perspectives. The profundity doesn’t stop with the execution of these technical feats. Rather, the profundity continues with the beautiful message that euphoric and challenging experiences are equally necessary to living a fulfilling life.
On the flip side of Pixar’s canon comes The Good Dinosaur, a story that suffers from a lack of originality and, at points, excitement, but it makes up for it in one of the most lifelike, meticulously animated worlds brought forth from the studio.
Pixar’s latest film lies somewhere in the middle.
Onward tells the story of a small family living in a suburban magical world. Among the central cast is Ian (Tom Holland), a shy 16 year-old nearing a coming of age, his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt), a magic-obsessed nerd taking a post-grad gap year, and their mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a widower juggling work and raising the boys. The family’s patriarch passed away before Ian was born.
The story begins on Ian’s 16th birthday. That evening, Ian is given a magical staff along with instructions for a spell to bring his father back from the dead for one day only. When the spell goes awry, the boys must team up to resurrect their father.
The story of Onward is simple and straightforward, but lived in.
In establishing the once enchanted world that has become mundane with the rise of technology (hypocritical, Disney), it fails to really build the world in which the story takes place. What are the rules of the magic? What is the setting’s history? What creatures inhabit this world? The filmmakers seem to skate over these important fundamentals and expect the audience to know the world as if this is a sequel or already established environment.
The story itself is a very by-the-numbers Disney tale. Touching upon loss, family, and coming-of-age, it checks off every Disney trope in the conglomerate’s Bible.
This works against the film just as it works in its favor. The emotional resonance mandatory for a Pixar film is knocked out of the park, with the central sibling relationship setting the foundation. That said, it probably won’t be remembered by many who passionately reflect on some of the hits from the studio.
What’s more unique than this sibling bond, though, is mom Laurel’s developing relationship with a secondary character, the mythical manticore Corey. The two women follow the boys on their quest, racing to ensure their safety and success in seeing their father. Filled with wit, mutual respect, and fun, their relationship is a scene-stealing highlight.
Onward presents enough moments of comedy, sincerity and wit to establish itself as Pixar through and through, but not much more. It does, however, open the door to a seemingly rich world with much exploring left to do. Perhaps a Disney+ series is in sight?