The once unstoppable animation juggernaut Pixar has long settled into a reliable groove of Disney films that are serviceable more than revelatory. Onward, the studio’s latest, has a nourishing sweetness that keeps it from being empty calories, but it still pales in comparison to its predecessors.

Inspired by Monsters University director Dan Scanlon’s relationship with his brother, the film takes place in a world that was once as fantastical as any Dungeons & Dragons guidebook but is now bereft of magic. Its fantasy denizens (trolls, unicorns, elves) all live in a technologically advanced society as modern and depressing as our own.

On his birthday, elf Ian (Tom Holland) and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) find out their deceased father (who passed when Barley was very young and before Ian was born) was a wizard. He left his sons a staff, a gem and a spell to bring him back to life for one day. But the spell doesn’t go as planned and the brothers have to go on a quest before the door closes on getting to know their father forever.

Watching this domestic drama play out as a fanciful comedy in the Pixar version of Netflix’s terrible Bright backdrop only highlights what a weird mishmash Onward truly is. Sure, at its core it’s a familial tale full of pathos that’s not far removed from Pixar’s lineage of dramatic storytelling, but the rest of it is cobbled together out of random Disney odds and ends. The character design and overall aesthetic feels generic, with a style and color palette that holds back how rich and detailed the animation itself is.

But what the film lacks in visual panache, it makes up for with pretty zippy comedy and a healthy approach to gags. There’s very little of the cloying, reference heavy humor a lot of newer children’s films trade in, instead relying on strong callbacks and sequences built around sturdy story craft. It’s far from one of the more well written Pixar outings, but the script holds up well to the scrutiny of the studio’s narrative think tank.

Really, every Pixar flick can be broken down to its barest elements and be judged by the moment that makes the audience cry the most. Onward’s emotional catharsis is both pleasant and a little surprising, but it feels somewhat slight and not as satisfying as one would hope.

But if the film has a major failing, it’s Disney’s continued insistence on making a big deal in a film’s press run over lower-than-bare-minimum LGBTQ representation. After the gay cameo of Avengers: Endgame and the blink-and-miss lesbian kiss at the end of the Rise of Skywalker, Onward goes one, miniscule step further and features Lena Waithe voicing a cop with a few lines of dialogue, namely one referencing her girlfriend’s kids that literally uses the phrase “it gets better,” uncomfortably pandering to an audience it clearly just doesn’t give a fuck about to begin with.

If Disney wants brownie points for gesturing in the direction of acknowledging the existence of homosexuality, they should make an effort to tell and highlight more diverse stories and give them the same space and sincerity of the central brotherhood narrative at the heart of this film.

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2 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    March 7, 2020 at 10:33 am

    Why does it have to be gay? Why does everything have to be gay?

    Reply

    • Anonymous

      March 8, 2020 at 5:26 pm

      Why does everything have to be straight?

      Reply

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