MCN Commentary & Analysis

Review: Onward (spoiler-free)

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

17 Responses to “Review: Onward (spoiler-free)”

  1. MarkVH says:

    So it sounds like Coco continues to retain its title of best Pixar movie of the last decade.

  2. Hcat says:

    Coco by a length. David points out Lasseter’s departure as a possible reason Onward didn’t reach previous achieved heights but to be honest I thought they lost their step well before that. The first half of their work is head and shoulders above the second half. Its like they hit seventies era Stones or Eighties era Elton John period where stuff is not as inspired or new and sort of coasts on your already pleasant associations. Things like Coco can come around and be a Some Girls type return to form but otherwise it seems to have hit a pleasant plateau, where they are no longer required viewing but not a bad afternoon.

    Funnily they seem to run inverse to the traditionally animated division. That fell off a cliff the same year that Toy Story came out, bottomed out while Pixar was peaking and then got their mojo back with Tangled just as Pixar decided to concentrate on sequels. I would revisit Frozen, Zootopia and Moana more readily than any of the Pixar films from last decade.

  3. Yancy says:

    Pixar is the A team. Every animated CG picture from Disney (Zootopia, Frozen) feels like the work of the B team.

  4. MarkVH says:

    I think Coco is one of the five best movies they’ve made (would put it at #4 or #5 on the list) but otherwise agree that they’ve mostly settled into “not bad,” “pretty good” territory. Inside Out and Toy Story 4 (which I like better than 3) are probably the only other exceptions, though I don’t find Inside Out to be the masterpiece many seem to think it is.

  5. MarkVH says:

    Oh and I’ll add that I still think Up is Pixar’s best movie by a fairly comfortable margin.

  6. Triple Option says:

    I’ll agree with the DreamWorks Animation assessment. The ending played out more touching than I would’ve imagined, given how blah most of the movie was up to that point. I don’t know how to have fixed that. Make it funnier? More imaginative uses of the magic? Give the kid a greater sense of loss? I feel like Pixar and animated films in general have been along for long enough that the magic of a Pixar film shouldn’t be limited to just one person. I’m not even talking formula. The whole thing was a bit bland. I’ll also say that a Pixar film doesn’t have to be “magical” to be good. I loved the film Storks that came out a few years ago. It wasn’t that it had the same heart as say Toy Story but but it was just a funny and enjoyable movie to watch.

  7. movieman says:

    For me, “Onward” was beyond-dreary. Next to that awful dinosaur movie, I think it’s Pixar’s nadir. Not surprised they dropped it off-season.

    Did anyone else catch “Spenser Confidential” on Netflix this weekend?
    Thought it was a solid double, and another tasty Berg/Wahlberg collaboration. If I had paid to see it in a theater, I would’ve left satisfied and with a smile on my face.
    Scene-stealing support from Winston Duke and Iliza Schlesinger, too.
    Felt like the sort of character (and location)-driven, “comfortable-with-its-“R”-rating action movie that studios have basically stopped making this century. (Another rare exception was the underrated Denzel/Marky-Mark “Two Guns,” one of the few recent-ish Wahlberg vehicles not directed by Berg.)
    At times I was reminded of “Charley Varrick”-era Don Siegel. High praise indeed.

  8. Stella's Boy says:

    Asked both of my kids if they wanted to see Onward with me and they both immediately said no. They have zero interest in it. That is incredibly rare for them. Typically they both want to see every animated movie.

    We were talking about Spenser in one of the BYOBs. I watched it last night. Story is as familiar as it gets. Every beat is expected and there’s not a surprise to be found. But it’s very easy to watch. I was entertained start to finish. Good cast. Funny. Crowd pleasing. Solid flick.

  9. movieman says:

    Really liked “The Way Back,” and I’m not the biggest Gavin O’Connor fan (I don’t even love “Miracle;” sorry).
    It also features one of Ben Affleck’s top-three all-time performances (the others being “Chasing Amy” and “Gone Girl”).
    I appreciated the lack of condescension in depicting working class American lives (AND Catholic high schools); its avoidance of the hoariest sports movie cliches is equally admirable.
    At its best, it almost felt like a movie that could have been made in 1974–probably starring James Caan or Bruce Dern and directed by Bob Rafelson.
    As one of the few studio movies in current wide release specifically made for adult audiences, it deserves your support.

  10. Hcat says:

    Really saddened to hear of the passing of Max Von Sydow. I remember seeing Exorcist as a kid and being amazed the rest of my life as that frail priest kept showing up time and again, when he looked ancient during my youth. Always a joy to see him pop up on screen and one of the loveliest voices ever to emerge from the soundtrack, perhaps second only to Guinness.

    “As one of the few studio movies in current wide release specifically made for adult audiences, it deserves your support.”
    That reminds me I finally got to see Queen and Slim last week. Would like more studio films like that please!

  11. Rams says:

    So “Spenser Confidential” was so great? Didn’t even get a stint at the vaunted Netflix Paris Theatre (or anywhere else). Sounds like it had a production schedule of a typical Elvis Presley epic. And what happened to that 150 million dollar fiasco “Six Underground”? Sunk in the Netflix black hole.

    And whatever happened to them buying the Eqyptian Theatre in Hollywood? As soon as they found out it’s not considered a commercial theatre, they quietly forgot about it.

    And Hollywood Reporter has reported that Disney Plus’ original product now and in the future is not enticing to anyone unless your kids are frozen on what else?

    And don’t even talk about Apple Plus. Has anybody except the Bubble Website People subscribed to it?

  12. Mostly Lurking says:

    Not Onward related, but since this thread has essentially turned into a BYOB, seems as good a place as any to throw this out for discussion. Not to make light of the COVD-19 pandemic, but could not help but wonder if this would be the ideal time for a studio to identify a relatively big budget movie they never would have considered for same day and date pay per view and take a shot. I’d imagine theaters are going to be fairly empty for the next couple of months and it would seem to be the perfect time to encourage them to fork over the extra cash for brand new content in the hopes that once they’ve done it once, they’d be more open to doing it again in the future. Don’t have much time to flesh this out more, but always enjoy reading the thoughts of those posting here (especially from Dave and the former hot blog posters).

    Again, not making light of the situation and obviously, anyone truly hit by this thing won’t give a shit about watching a movie, but for the vast majority, the staying away from crowds and trying to keep to the home will not be directly affected but simply acting responsibly to help contain the virus as best as we, as a society, can. If anyone is offended by even bringing up the subject, I apologize, but to me these types of discussion are a nice diversion.

  13. Stella's Boy says:

    I agree it’s interesting to think about these things and a nice diversion. Will theaters stay open? A Quiet Place II just moved. Surely others will soon follow. What are theaters going to do?

  14. Rams says:

    Mostly Lurking- You definitely sound like one those people who would love for all theatres to be destroyed once and for all. Why anyone would pay $50.00 to watch a movie at home is out of their f**king minds. People with these streaming services pay enough without paying more. You want just want TV, fine. And that’s all you’ll have. Enjoy!

  15. Mostly Lurking says:

    No, I want exactly what I said, an interesting discussion. Seems like you’re predisposed to not believe me, but I love going to the movies and have no desire for day and date releases to be successful if that success means the elimination, or even substantial reduction, of theaters. I think the trend towards theaters with reclining seats and reserved seating has made the actual in theater experience the best bang for the buck that it’s been in years. Nevertheless, I recognize that the studios are going to keep trying to cut out the middle man so why not discuss it?

  16. Hcat says:

    As I mentioned on another thread, there has got to be some legal issues that would keep them from just dropping a film meant for theatrical release onto PPV. I would think the talent contracts for a film of any size would guarantee a theatrical release. Now Blumhouse might not have that because their budgets are so low they want to keep some flexibility around releasing, but I would think anything that would be a big splash tentpole would have established language that it was heading to theaters.

    Since they have started to come out with their streaming services I haven’t heard much talk about Day and Date anymore. I thought maybe they had stopped chasing that rabbit.

  17. Mostly Lurking says:

    I don’t know, it seems like every once in awhile a movie comes along with a big name or two that was delayed a couple of times and winds up going straight to pay per view. Perhaps there is a very limited release to satisfy some legal obligation, but I don’t think we have to assume such obligations exist for purposes of this discussion. Unintentionally keeping things on thread, I think that if it had been scheduled just a couple of weeks later, Onward would have been a perfect movie for testing out a big budget straight to pay per view.

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