Disney might wind up feeling pretty OK about this pandemic, as its newest Pixar title, the Dungeons and Dragons-y Onward just hit streaming services following disappointing box office numbers (disappointing for Pixar, anyway).
It's a trend we're probably going to see bloom in the coming days, namely, films that were just in theaters or were slated to hit them soon coming to Amazon or iTunes or wherever while we're on lockdown. Right now, we're what you might call a captive audience, especially for people with kids who are in search of 90 minutes of calm. Make no mistake, though, while this might seem exciting enough for those of us taking COVID-19 seriously, the $19.99 price tag for Onward tells us we're still dealing with the same old Disney.
Anyway, in Onward, a once magic world maintains its mythical beasts and creatures (unicorns and pixies and dragons and the like), though magic has gone from the world. People still live in mushroom houses and stuff, but they're everyday folks who own phones and watch television and drive cars and go to school and so on.
Enter Ian (voiced by Spider-Man himself, Tom Holland), a painfully shy and newly 16-year-old elf whose dad died just before he was born. Ian's mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a minivan driving any-mother, his brother Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt) is taking a gap year and loves him some history—Ian's life is hectic. But then he discovers his dearly departed dad left behind a spell that can conjure up his existence for a 24-hour period, but the brothers manage to only spirit his legs back. With the clock ticking, they set out to find an item to complete the magic, but you bet your ass they'll meet a wacky bunch of centaurs and manticores and cyclopses and shit like that and—yeah, it's Zootopia, but with fantasy creatures.
If it sounds fun, it almost is, but Onward feels like Pixar's attempt to hold onto an aging demographic of no-longer-kids. Like its similarly tone-confused Inside Out, this one never seems to know if it's courting teens, tweens, the single-digit set or their parents. By aiming for all of them at once, things wind up irritating, particularly in the jokes department as everything either plays to the tired old assumption that people who like fantasy fiction are losers (what year is this, anyway?!) or tries too hard to say "Isn't it funny to see a goblin doing regular human stuff? ISN'T IT?!"
A pixie biker gang, for example, feels absurd (and not good absurd) in execution, but downright baffling as to who it's meant for. Adults will find this and many other plot beats tiresome, and the humor-lite of almost every situation simply won't land for younger kids. That's not even getting into how exhaustingly awkward Ian is or how Barley's passion is repeatedly played for laughs—what an idiot, right? For caring about stuff so deeply? Making a dead father's legs its own character, meanwhile, is mostly creepy if you think about it for more than a second.
Smash cut to seemingly impossible odds, ham-fisted schmaltz and a series of lessons about what it means to be brave and true and honest to ourselves, and we've got a paint-by-numbers affair in a bland world that might have been cool if it didn't feel so well-worn. The story template could have fit over any genre, really, and that's kind of boring.
With animated movies like Spider-Man: Into the Multiverse shifting the idea of what such films can do, it might be a good time for Pixar to stop treating audiences like we aren't capable of more complexity or, at the very least, a little less cutesy crap.
We get it, Pixar, we do. Now answer us this: How the eff was an effing centaur supposed to drive a car in the first place?
+Pixar animators are obviously brilliant
–Zootopia only it's not Zootopia
Directed by Dan Scanlon
With Holland, Pratt and Louis-Dreyfus
Amazon, iTunes, PG, 102 min.