Let us regard Pixar for a minute and the sheer scale and quality of their product since they reinvented the animation wheel with Toy Story back in 1995. Constantly staying ahead of the competition with innovative, fully realised worlds and peerless characterization (not to mention the immovable bulk of winning comedy their films regularly boast), their resent output (Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur and Coco aside) has been noticeably peppered with sequels with an argument to be made that you could accuse that most dependable of moviemaking entities of having the odd after-taste of playing it safe.
Well along comes their latest offering, Onward, to muddy the debate even further as even though this story of high adventure set in the modern day suburbs of a fantasy realm is not a sequel in any way shape or form, it falls back on so many of Pixar’s proven story traits I found it hugely familiar despite never having seen it before. After all, the studio built it’s sizable reputation on mismatched buddy comedies, has played with the concept of dead parents more times than a dozen Batman reboots and has even dealt with teenage growing pains on more than one occasion and Onward manages to tick of every single one of these boxes in rapid succession.
So has Pixar finally started to lose it’s sheen after twenty five years at the top? To find out, I guess we’ll need to go on a quest…
Set in a fantasy realm of elves, goblins, pixies and the like, where years of technological advancement (The lightbulb! The automobile! The smartphone!) have caused magic to gradually leave the world – we meet Ian, a shy elf just hitting his sixteenth birthday who lives in the Spielbergian surburban town of New Mushroomton. Painfully lacking confidence and wounded over the fact that his father died of illness before he was old enough to even have a memory of him, Ian constantly wishes he was more outgoing like his brash big brother, Barley, a history buff on an extended “gap year”. As a suprise, their mother gives the boys a mystery gift their father wanted them to have when Ian was old enough which turns out to be a magical staff and an old jewel which gives it’s wielder the power to bring back a lost loved one for hours. Despite his boundless and enthusiastic passion for the world’s magical past, Barley has no aptitude for magic but Ian does, but his lack of self-belief leaves the spell only half finished and all the brothers are left with is a disembodied pair of legs stumbling round the place that can neither see nor hear. To Barley’s delight (and Ian’s regret) they realise that to do this right they need to go on a quest to locate another crystal to complete their father before the 24 hours is up.
Hopping into Barley’s beloved, dilapidated van, Guinivere they head off on a road trip so Ian can finally meet the father he’s never known.
So yes… all the established Pixar themes are present and trotted dutifully out but then the studio do them so well that it’s tough not to get swept up in the tale even when you know exactly where it’s going.
The dead relative trope, while done better elsewhere (Up, Coco) is still magnificently handled, mercilessly plucking those heart strings when dealing with the family’s loss (Barley’s confessed memory of his father in hospital will emotionally double over literally anyone with similar experience) but also will probably be an invaluable tool when trying to explain grief to a child the same way that you could use Inside Out to help with emotions.
Also getting another outing is Pixar’s most overused plot device of all, that of the mismatched buddy road trip that’s been employed in everything from Toy Story to Finding Nemo and again, while it’s been handled better in the past, the teaming of Tom Holland (doing his nervy Peter Parker thing) and Chris Pratt (doing his doofus Parks & Rec thing by way of Jack Black’s rock obsessed Tenacious D persona) is still a worthy double act – and even ticks off the family element Pixar has also heavily leaned into with the Incredibles movies.
So does ANYTHING make Onward stand out from the rest of rest of the studio’s output?
Featuring some spectacularly solid world building that feels like John Hughes got drunk with Tolkien and pitched a film to Amblin (it’s SO Amblin) it’s the little details that make Onward soar as high as it does. The legendary, fearsome beast, The Manticore has been reduced to running a family themed restaurant, unicorns are bin raiding, raccoon style pests, Pixies travel in vicious street gangs even though it takes about thirteen of them to drive one motorcycle – the movie is a steady stream of sight gags and genius comedy skits. The running gag of the shades wearing dummy made to disguise the missing upper half of the father is nothing short of genius – watch it accidentally pick a fight simply by slouching – and the last ride of Guinevere the van is absurdly touching while also being riotously funny.
So while not being top tier Pixar, it’s still an incredibly well nuanced family flick that mule kicks you in the genitalia of your emotions while dinging your funny bone in satisfyingly genuine ways.
While Pixar has recently announced that it’s bringing it’s string of sequelizing to an end it’s going to take something a bit more innovative that this to keep the studio at the top of the mountain but until then, Onward’s sweetspot is crafted just sweet enough to guarantee copious amounts of tears of both the happy and sad variety.
Pixar seems to continue ever Onward…