First things first: Onward is perfectly adequate family entertainment. It’s reasonably exciting for kids and miles more tolerable for adults than your average Boss Baby or Madagascar or whatever. All things it’s considered, it’s probably not even the worst Pixar movie. But it is the first non-sequel Pixar movie to feel like such an obvious echo of better Pixar movies.
The setting is promising. The characters in Onward, directed by Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) inhabit a Lord Of The Rings-esque world of elves, ogres, fairies, sprites, and trolls, but in a decidedly mundane post-magic age. Which is to say, there used to be magic in this world, but as an intro montage explains, it was hard to wield, and once everyone had electricity and cars and iPhones to do the work magic used to do, they sort of just stopped trying. Eventually they forgot how. Bold for Disney, of all companies, to make a movie about modernity destroying magic and wonder. But it’s an interesting conceit, one that’s a bit like Idiocracy for kids. (It’s never too early to warn your kids about the soul suck of consumer culture!)
Tom Holland voices Ian, a spindly blue elf with the requisite fluffy head mop who is trying to turn over a new leaf on his 16th birthday — make some friends, stop being so awkward, grow a spine — basically the full McFly. Complicating things is Ian’s lack of a father figure. His dad died of an unnamed elf disease when Ian was a baby (I’d like to think it was lilleukemia) and has left Ian alone with their mother and screw-up brother. Chris Pratt voices Barley, Ian’s van-driving pseudo-hesher of an older brother who a few years ago would probably have been modeled on Jack Black. Barley is obsessed with the magical world of the past and loves rocking out to mixtapes. He’s… well he’s basically Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy, isn’t he?
Ian and Barley find their MacGuffin in a forgotten present from dad. A spell that will bring him back from the dead for just one day. Only the magical crystal that powers the wand explodes halfway through, leaving them with a half dad — just legs and feet, no upper body. This could’ve been the premise for some horror movie — dad’s disemtorso’d legs acting out the horror of his upper body being trapped in some hellish Event Horizon-style purgatory. In Onward it’s the beginning of buddy comedy road trip romp to find a new crystal. (Wait, the cure for soul-sucking consumerism is magic crystals? Gwyneth Paltrow would love this message.)
One central flaw of Onward is that it never establishes rules for its ghost half-dad. Certainly he can’t see, but can the legs hear? Or would he (it?) need ears for that? Are the legs sentient, or would that require a brain? Do the balls recognize their offspring? Does he like being dead or does it suck? In the face of so many questions for and about half-dads, Onward is silent or inconsistent. Ian and Barley never even attempt to create a system to communicate with him — like the soldier in Johnny Got His Gun banging out morse code on his pillow, say — which seems weird for two guys seeing their father for the first time in so many years, even in ghost leg form.
Ian and Barley’s goose chase is cleverly structured and so the movie moves along nicely. It’s decently entertaining, joining Ian and Barley on their scavenger hunt through this world of orcs and trolls and such — there’s Octavia Spencer as a Manticore and a rowdy gang of fairies on motorcycles that feels a lot like a thinly-veiled Dykes On Bikes reference. But it also doesn’t explore its own world’s possibilities nearly as well as, say, Zootopia. Certainly nothing as inspired as the sloths-working-at-the-DMV scene. Onward is built around a sentimental core, with Ian on a race to get just a few more hours with the father he never met, but even that feels like a lesser attempt at Coco (probably the Pixar movie that most consistently makes me cry).
Which is to say, Onward is a perfectly fine movie made up of elements of Guardians of the Galaxy, Zootopia, Coco, Wall E, and assorted other Disney products that it doesn’t employ quite as well. Your kids probably won’t notice, but you will.