Just about every Pixar movie transports audiences to a shiny new world of wonder: the depths of the ocean, the deepest reaches of space, the inside of the human brain. But the key to the studio’s enduring popularity may be the way it tethers those meticulously crafted backdrops to stories of relatable emotion and experience, even when the characters are, say, hunks of sentient plastic or nightmarishly organic automobiles. Think of the original Toy Story, which uses its irresistible toys-coming-alive conceit to tell a hilariously touching buddy comedy of jealousy and reluctant friendship. One could say these movies exist at the spot where the magical and the mundane meet.
Onward, Pixar’s latest blast of spit-shined enchantment, comes close to making that core principle literal. It takes place, after all, in a literal fantasy world, full of the kind of mythic creatures you might see gallivanting through a Tolkien or Rowling adaptation. The movie’s premise, and its central joke, is that this fairy-tale kingdom has become, centuries on and with the advent of technology, as mundane as our real world: Centaurs now chug around town in cars instead of running free, cyclopes swipe at smart phones, and unicorns—that most cherished of imaginary critter—are so common they’re basically trash-eating pests, like raccoons with horns. It’s a fun idea, albeit one that accidentally recalls the basic setup of Netflix’s overblown Bright. But watching Onward, it’s hard to shake the feeling that maybe Pixar has overplayed the mundane half of its winning equation. They’ve made a movie about looking for misplaced magic in the modern world that, well, kind of misplaces the magic.
At its core, this is a platonic love story between brothers, like parent company Disney’s gender-flipped answer to its own Frozen. Tom Holland, in between Spider-Man sequels, voices Ian Lightfoot, a scrawny teenage elf with some serious self-confidence issues. He lives an uneventful suburban life in New Mushroomtown, under the loving gaze of his single mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and his college-aged, slacker older brother, Barley (fellow Marvel company player Chris Pratt). Barley drives around in a beat-up, decaled van he calls Guinevere, blasting cheesy power metal; were this not a PG family film, opening its doors would presumably release an enormous cloud of smoke. This shiftless goofball also loves the film’s equivalent of Dungeons & Dragons, which he insists is historically accurate—a not-so-implausible theory, given the Gary Gygax adventure spectacle glimpsed in the opening montage.
As we learn through some very clumsy exposition (seriously, a stranger just comes up and basically blurts it out), Ian and Barley lost their father years earlier; even Pixar, Disney’s hipper cousin, can’t resist the instant pathos of a croaked parent. But on Ian’s 16th birthday, Mom dusts off a gift that Dad left behind for this very occasion: a wizard’s staff, a glowing gem, and a spell that, if performed correctly, will bring the senior Lightfoot back for 24 hours of quality time. Ian, as it turns out, has some of that long-forgotten magic in his blood! But because he hasn’t yet learned to believe in himself, he only half pulls off the spell. As in, he brings his father back as a pair of khakied, disembodied legs—the bottom portion of a man, unable to see, hear, or talk but capable of communicating with his boys via taps on their feet.
It’s a morbid and strangely affecting plot turn. It also promises a more madcap movie than the one Onward becomes. The film’s director, Dan Scanlon, previously oversaw Pixar’s Monsters University, which was basically a beast-centric spoof of ’80s campus comedies, down to its formulaic Revenge Of The Nerds underdog-frat storyline. This time around, he’s drifting into the Chris Columbus lane of mostly wholesome teenage misadventure, with some faint echoes of other Reagan-era fare. (For example, Scanlon swipes a climactic shot from Back To The Future.) This isn’t a wholly unwelcome approach, especially with the voice talent assembled. The two leads pump some soul and personality into their stock roles, developing a credible sibling rapport as Ian and Barley set out on a quest to find another “phoenix stone,” complete the spell, and maybe fill in the top half of their dead dad. Pratt, especially, rises to the occasion, bringing his puppy-dog affability to a character who’s like some agreeable blend of Jack Black, Seth Rogen, and the big brother from Sing Street.
Yet Onward never really takes flight, even when its winged characters are learning to do just that. It seems stuck in first gear, and keeps veering off into mild detours, like a role-playing campaign run by an unimaginative DM. During one such pit stop, the brothers stumble into an infamously imposing tavern that’s been turned, eons later, into a cutesy tourist-trap gimmick restaurant. The gag is that the place’s owner, a once-fearsome monster voiced by Octavia Spencer, is now a harried manager who’s lost her edge. But in showing us how every corner of this land has been stripped of its danger and wonder, the film ends up looking rather tamed itself; even the action set-pieces, like a speeding pursuit involving a gang of motorcycle-riding pixies, lack the whirligig momentum of your average Pixar chase sequence. The point is that modern life dims the excitement of actually living. Is that excuse enough for introducing a fantasy world of limitless possibilities, then viewing it mostly through the windows of a sputtering van getting on and off the expressway?
Onward is far from Pixar’s worst. How could it be, with those Cars sequels sitting in the lot? But it might be the beloved animation house’s most ordinary movie. (This could help explain why it’s opening in the lower-impact arena of the spring movie season—a first for a company that’s historically staked out only summer and Thanksgiving.) There’s something kind of schematic about the film’s arc of empowerment and sibling bonding: Determined to carpe diem his buttoned-up life, the plucky Ian has a habit of making checklists to motivate himself, and the screenwriters seem similarly beholden to self-imposed imperatives, crossing off lessons and achievements and setbacks and familiar plot beats on the way to a big-boom finale. Thankfully, though, one of the items on their list is the expected bid for our waterworks. And if Onward otherwise feels decidedly like a second-tier adventure, it makes like its hero and acquits itself quite nicely when it counts, with a finale that offers an unlikely, unintuitive vantage on the cathartic moment of truth. Here, at least, Pixar still has a monopoly on that old intersection of the magical and mundane.