It’s not much of a controversial statement to point out that Pixar’s recent output as of late has not been up to the typically high standards of quality that the studio has consistently set. With films such as Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and of course Toy Story, just to name a few, Pixar has continued to redefine the standard for what animation could accomplish with clever concepts, innovative technology, endearing characters, and emotional storytelling not just for young audiences but their adult counterparts as well. Throughout the past decade, however, Pixar has largely grown complacent in continuously churning out admittedly serviceable albeit inessential sequels to these beloved instant classics, with that occasional spark of ambitious originality becoming more of a rarity.
Following this barrage of yearly sequels, 2020 will be the first year since 2015 to be graced with two original films: Soul, the newest from Pete Doctor (Up, Inside Out), and Onward, a fantastical brotherly tale from Dan Scanlon (Monsters University). Both, in theory, are a step in the right direction for where Pixar’s creative energy is best served, and while they seem to have cornered out somewhat of a comfort zone for themselves, even in their original works, that same whimsical brand of Pixar magic always manages to shine through. Onward, the first of the two to be released, is a mythical fantasy-set story of two elf brothers, Ian and Barley Lightfoot (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) as they embark on an epic quest to reconnect with their long-deceased father, and discover their deeply-rooted brotherly bond with each other along the way.
Although the prospects of Pixar returning to another long-awaited original property appears to be a refreshing breath of fresh air in comparison to the recent trend towards sequels, the apprehension with Onward though is that, on the surface, it comes across as a frustratingly generic retread of tropes and aesthetics of not only Pixar’s previous work but of other contemporary animated films as well. The designs of the main characters look almost indiscernible from characters in a movie like Trolls or any other generic fantasy-set CG animated movie, contributing to it feeling less like a Pixar movie and more like lesser-grade Dreamworks fare.
Not to mention that the voice talent employed to play the leads are two mega-popular Hollywood leading men from the biggest franchise in cinema history. This feels like the type of Hollywood stunt casting that would be expected of lesser animation studios, whereas in the past Pixar would usually be more inclined to cast a more unconventional character actor like Patton Oswalt (Ratatouille) or Ed Asner (Up) in the lead to bring the character to life so the audience isn’t being distracted by a well-known celebrity doing the voice. It also continues the – at one point time-honored Pixar tradition – now overdone cliche of the mismatched pairing of a nebbish stick-in-the-mud and their overbearing, obnoxious sidekick who must learn how to work together and overcome their differences, while recognizing the positive qualities in each other that they were once irritated by (see Woody & Buzz, Marlin & Dory, Joy & Sadness, etc.).
With this many predictable characterizations and bland aesthetic choices, Onward could have been a forgettable, generic dud that would be rendered indistinguishable within a sea of countless other mediocre family movies. What makes Onward stand out as being something more resonant, however, is ultimately what makes every Pixar movie stand out: their dedication to crafting relatable human stories with genuine emotional sentiments as their top priority. Pixar’s stories are able to connect emotionally with not only children but more so adults because the themes and stories that they choose to explore, while accessible and necessary for children to understand, are always executed with a level of maturity that seems to have the adult viewers primarily in mind. From something as simple as the importance of embracing your negative emotions (Inside Out) to something as complex and morbid as the acceptance of the inevitability of death (Up, Coco) Pixar’s themes are always presented with a poignancy far beyond what most studios believe children are capable of comprehending.
While the ultimate message of Onward – the importance of sibling relationships – is one that is noticeably more tailor-made towards experiences more immediately identifiable to the average child viewer, it conveys its message in a way that, while somewhat simplistic, doesn’t feel juvenile. The relationship between Ian and Barley is one that has been seen countless times before–the younger shy, awkward brother and the obnoxious older brother who constantly embarrasses him–and for as predictable as the resolution may appear to be, the characters are still written with an endearing charm that it makes the emotional beats pay off in a satisfying way.
The familial connection between the two brothers is something that runs much deeper than just simply learning to get along with your sibling. The bond between brothers is a relationship that in some ways can be even more intimate than between a parent and child. The constant squabbling and irritation that you cause each other in your younger years only intensify the strength of your connection as you both mature. For a movie intended for younger audiences to have the foresight to tap into this more complex understanding of sibling relationships is the kind of emotional powerhouse storytelling that we come to expect from Pixar, even at their least exceptional.
On the surface, Onward could have very easily settled for being a perfectly decent yet generic animated children’s film with some fun fantasy world-building and likable goofy characters and not much more to offer. Its commitment to telling a more mature story with poignant themes through the guise of being a light kid-friendly adventure is everything that makes Pixar the unmatched powerhouse of mainstream animation that they continue to be.