ST. LOUIS — Pixar movies are good for two things: wowing audiences on a constant basis and setting high expectations for future films.
"Finding Nemo," the "Toy Story" movies, "Cars," "The Incredibles" movies, and "Up" are just a few of the movies that dazzled the mind and should hold up for future generations. You know them well but not as well as your grandchildren eventually will.
The latest Pixar feature, "Onward," doesn't belong to that group. It's more like a second tier film from the studio, such as "The Good Dinosaur" and "Monsters University." I wouldn't call those necessarily bad movies, but they aren't on the elite level of the previously mentioned films. They are fun, breezy, and excellent time wasters.
I wouldn't say "Onward" is a mediocre to poor film, but I wouldn't label it as an instant classic either. It's a pleasant and most of the time enjoyable romp that should please the kids and appease the more cynical adults. It doesn't cause you to stretch much mentally, but won't leave your legs asleep from lack of movement.
Barley (Chris Pratt) and Ian (Tom Holland) are brothers in a suburban world of magical creatures who saw their wizardry timed out with the invention of various human technologies, limiting their species to freak show and walking amusement parks. The older Barley is a fierce believer in the "magic" while the younger Ian searches for his place in a world with his dad. When the two find out that magical powers are not obsolete, they go on an adventure that proves ambitious, dangerous, and emotional.
That's all there is to it. Two boys searching for their father and some magic. Throw in a "warrior" mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and unconventional local law enforcement (Lana Waithe), and that's all the flash this film can present. It's a simplistic tale that should strike a chord or two but won't hit really hard or revolutionize your senses.
Pratt and Holland are likable enough to pull off their roles without moving too far from their niche. Louis-Dreyfus gets to provide some often-times hilarious support while Waithe can show us one more thing she is capable of. Octavia Spencer owns the show with her wild untamed warlock beast, The Manticore.
It's a lost parent/finding powers trek that Disney/Pixar has patented, leading to many effective interpretations of that story. But after a while the expected leads to the impact on the viewer being lessened. We know what's coming at the end of "Onward," so even a few tweaks to the reveal can't elevate the emotional toll that much. You'll smile and hug the kiddo, but it won't move you to another place like earlier Pixar films did.
Technically, the film is potent but the aesthetic is getting worn down. The visuals pop and serve their purpose and the story doesn't deter far from the norm, but they also don't resonate as deeply. There's a scene late in the film between two characters that should melt you but that wasn't my experience. The feed got to me, but it had some static this time.
"Onward" is worth seeing, for the cast and visual palette it provides. That's bought and paid for at the door of production. But I don't think it will be treasured for a long period of time. It's fleeting and well made, but it lacks the Pixar magic.
I wouldn't tell you to skip it, but the label of "must see" sits far from it.
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