| August 3, 2020
There is something sad about a bad Pixar movie.
Like so many things Disney, Pixar is going through a generational change in the post-Lasseter era. The place is still loaded to the gills with talented people. But when you see a movie like Onward, you realize that something or someone was missing.
Onward is not a painfully bad film. Not at all. But it is painfully mediocre. It looks and feels like a DreamWorks Animation film, which is not a natural insult, but does speak to the idea that it doesn’t feel unique as Pixar films so often are.
Then you add a great voice cast, most of who, are doing “cartoon voices.” Basically, they were all – except Tom Holland – doing “louder, faster, funnier,” except it wasn’t. And as one sifts through very familiar voices that don’t seem themselves, you realize that a part of the Pixar brand has been perfectly cast actors pretty much playing themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I worship the ground that June Foray and Mel Blanc and Maurice LaMarche and Tom Kenny (amongst so many) walk on. But that is a style of voice acting you don’t get with Pixar. Even when Richard Kind did Bing Bong in Inside Out, it was a performance, but it sure was Richard from the very first groan. Here, I was trying to figure out from the get go why Julia Louis-Dreyfus was doing “Midwestern Mom Comedy Voice.” I wanted to hear her as her interpreting the character. And why was Chris Pratt doing Josh Gad when they could have just gotten Josh Gad and gotten all kinds of unexpected colors. Even Octavia Spencer… She snuck herself in a little, but mostly was caught acting. I love all these actors… but I wanted what they bring that is special: themselves.
Then you get to the movie, which I won’t spoil. But the story is a classic notion of self-discovery… but so simple that it may have been better suited as a short.
For Pixar, which has been so much more sophisticated and demanding of the audience than cartoons are supposed to be, there were very low stakes. The opportunity to meet your father who died before you can remember is a big heart-tugger. And yeah, they tug. But why does it matter so much to THESE brothers? What was missing in their souls? I don’t know. They seem incredibly well-adjusted, albeit teens.
There are movies where I absolutely am squirming in my seat trying to figure out why certain choices were made. Not here. It was solidly predictable. Well made. Great actors. But I wanted to truly be surprised.
Even the choice to set it in this oddly semi-magical not-self-aware world felt like someone forgot to cut that part in a meeting. There were gags to meet the challenge… but they were just gags. A mushroom house is only interesting if there is a reason why people live in a mushroom house. This was more like The Bradys of Magic Town. Sometimes there were juxtapositions. Sometimes there weren’t.
I loved the little pink pixies that I won’t describe more of because they are so fun.
But I felt from start to finish like I was watching a skillfully made film that wasn’t magic. Can’t throw a rotten tomato… but not a fan. And I have felt that magic, repeatedly, from Pixar shorts. I am not a cruel taskmaster on this.
I know nothing about the production of this film. But as I was watching, I was thinking, “Would Lasseter have spoken up and moved them in a different direction?” My guess is yes. Whatever kind of perv he might be, his track record as a producer is breathtaking… much better than Weinstein or anyone else this side of Kevin Feige. There is a communal process to developing and building these films at Pixar. And this time, something seems sorely missing.
So now, I wait for Soul…
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