There are few words, if any, that I imagine have been used to describe a Pixar movie more often than “magical.” The ingenious premise of “Toy Story,” the odyssey of Wall-E wordlessly cleaning an abandoned world, the sheer joy of “Un Poco Loco” being sung in a vibrant rendition of the Land of the Dead—all worthy of being called “magical” 25 years into a period that’s seen the bar for animation raised higher than the 50 years prior.
It’s about time, then, that Pixar has made a movie where magic is an explicit force in the story, though “Onward” – the first of two films coming from the animation funhouse studio in 2020 – is less another landmark of innovation and more a plug-‘n-play production with familiar aesthetic delights. The movie is fun (enjoyable even!), but despite “Onward” being leagues better than backwards Pixar misfires like “Cars 2” or “The Good Dinosaur,” “fun” and “enjoyable” is no “magical.” Such is the Pixar Standard.
Shepherding requisite genre tropes of self-belief and familial forgiveness within the influence of “Dungeons & Dragons,” “Lord of the Rings” and maybe a sprinkling of John Hughes, too, “Onward’s” premise is the movie’s most original aspect and also its least-explored: While there are centaurs, unicorns and elves in this world, they don’t engage in spell-casting practices, but instead drive blocky police cars, run pawn shops and pull on sweatshirts to get ready for the first day of school. Per the world-building narration that’s offered early on, the unpredictability of magic at one point became inferior to the reliability of technology, and a community otherwise nestled in the crook of a mythical valley has taken on the look of a suburban town. The setting is beautifully-rendered, but at the risk of saying the movie has a “DreamWorks feel” as if that studio was artistically inferior, “Onward” lacks the jaw-dropping visual splendor of recent fare like “Coco” or “Toy Story 4.” Continue reading →