Pixar seem to have survived the Disney take-over without too much bother; still, it’s something of a surprise to see a Pixar movie emerging just as the winter chill fades; we’re used to seeing the animation studio’s films at the height summer or Christmas holidays. But Onward feels like a minor entry in the Pixar canon, perhaps a cousin to The Good Dinosaur; it bears all the care and skill of a Pixar blockbuster, but there’s something deliberately muted about the atmosphere that makes it slippery to pin down.
Dan Scanlon’s comedy-drama starts on a melancholy note; Ian and Barley Lightfoot (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) have lost their father, and their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents them with a gift on Ian’s 16th birthday; a staff and jewel which will allow them to spend a precious 24 hours with their late father. Unfortunately, the plan doesn’t quite work, and Ian and Barley’s dad returns only in the form of a pair of legs. With said legs in tow, Ian and Barley set out on a quest to find another jewel they hope will enable them to complete the transformation, but time is against them…
Onward wears some Joseph Campbell influences on its sleeve, with lots of discussion about the nature of quests and finding yourself. It’s also set in a complex world where the fantastic and the real exist side by side, a la Bright, although Onward doesn’t view this with the kind of zany bounce that Zootopia/Zootropolis did. The theme is that magic has gone away, and there’s a quite laborious set-up explaining that magic is now something that technology has erased from everyday human existence. That’s something of a bummer, and the plot of Onward doesn’t resolve the issues, instead falling back on familiar ‘journey is the destination’ tropes to create a happy resolution.
Onward gets a little lost as it navigates the different forms of grief that the two brothers experience, and probably requires a little warning to ticket-buyers that this film deals overtly with death in a way that Coco managed to nimbly side-step. But there’s also plenty of pleasures, particularly Octavia Spencer as a manticore, and there’s trademark Pixar wit in the elaborately realised world of Ian and Barley inhabit. Onwards is a very neat little animation that skews towards teens rather than kids, and pushes the Pixar envelope in an unexpectedly serious direction. It’s a success, but also a diversion from a familiar formula that suggests that the animation studio isn’t entirely bogged down in sequels and toy licences.