That one word might sum up the attitude of many of my students about Lockdown Season. They’re ready to be done with these limitations. And yet they understand the gravity of the situation, so they’re trying to be responsible. Maybe that’s why movies that offer escape into new worlds are particularly appealing right now.

I feel out-of-step with them on this point: I’m feeling less interested in big, loud, exciting fantasy movies and more interested in films that quiet my anxious and weary mind. I’m not throwing shade here — I love great fantasy as much as anyone, and I write fantasy novels. It’s just that I’m craving contemplation more than clamor, and the weariness that comes from monitoring the crisis all around me makes it more difficult for me to be caught up in the Spectacular.

Nevertheless, since my childhood immersed me in Disney and my adulthood made me a fan of Pixar, I quickly made time to catch Onward. I’ve seen every Pixar movie — with the exception of Cars 3 (the second one was awful and the third one couldn’t hold my attention). And several rate among my all-time favorite films, so I’m not about to give up on them now.

Ian and Barley — two brothers on a quest to find… half of their father?

So, why has it taken me several weeks to write about Onward?

Two reasons, I think: First — I was disappointed with the film. It’s so busy juggling ideas that it never settles on any of those ideas with enough attention to make it meaningful. And, second — I found myself dreading the work of writing about what has become a very tired subject: the comparing and contrasting a new Pixar movie with past Pixar movies.

The clarifying power of these unnerving pandemic months is not only making my time watching movies more meaningful — it is giving me a stronger sense of what, when it comes to movies, is worth talking about… and what isn’t.

It seems like every conversation I’ve had about Pixar movies since the release of Cars 2 in 2011 has been about whether or not the Glory Days of Pixar are over, whether or not the studio’s filmmakers are sustaining the high standard of their early films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Toy Story 2. Almost every discussion I have after seeing a new Pixar movie devolves into whether or not the latest film is worthy of being on a list with the animation house’s masterpieces. Will they ever deliver something as good as WALL-E again? Was The Good Dinosaur evidence that they’ve “lost their touch”? Were we wrong to wish for Brad Bird to cook up a sequel to The Incredibles? Was Inside Out just a momentary revival of That Old Pixar Magic?

Come on.

At this point it should be clear: Pixar movies are still likely to be great, and even when they’re not, they’re extremely likely to be substantially better than almost everything we see from any other animation house. Of their last seven releases, Inside Out, Coco, and Toy Story 4 have all been huge with both critics and general audiences alike, and they have reputations of being well worth multiple viewings. I love them all. The other four? I enjoyed plenty about all of them.

Anyway… enough.

Barley: “Hey, Ian, do you think our movie has the glory of Pixar’s early days?”
Ian: “Barley… please. Don’t make me answer that question.”

These conversations about comparison eat up a lot of valuable time and attention that we could be giving to the movies itself. And trying to shake that habit is clearly eating up the time and space I have for this review. What other movie studio inspires such a constant and narrow focus on ranking their releases?

Let’s consider what really matters: Vision. Artistry. Meaning.

Okay? Let’s put the fuss behind us. Onward.

Literally… Onward.

Now available on Disney+ and streaming platforms everywhere, Onward — the new film from Monsters University director Scanlon and his co-writers Jason Headley and Keith Bunin  — is Pixar’s first venture into the territory of conventional fantasy tropes.

You might argue that 2012’s Brave inhabits fantasy territory, and that’s a fair claim — but I’d call Brave a film rooted in fairy tale traditions like the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, which is not the genre I mean when I say “fantasy.” (If you search for “Brenda Chapman” and “feminist fairy tale,” “Grimm,” and “Andersen,” and you’ll find claims that Chapman, Brave’s original director and storyteller, agrees.) To clarify terms, let me say that “conventional fantasy” is, in my estimation, the heavily traveled storytelling territory that involves variations on longstanding types and tropes like elves, dwarves, trolls, goblins, and dragons. The stories tend to be about epic quests and struggles over talismans. Tangled is fairy tale — The Hobbit and Harry Potter are fantasy.

And Onward is… a goofy, energetic, but dispiritingly derivative and uninspired fantasy.

Mother: “Hello, son. Yes, I know we live in a fantasy world. Now, leave me to my videos, please.”

What inspiration drove these storytellers to abandon Pixar’s tendency to dream up new worlds and play around instead with these tired tropes?

I’m disappointed to find out that Pixar’s take on elves, goblins, centaurs, unicorns, dragons, and the other usual fantasy-world suspects is so consistently unremarkable, so focused on wink-wink pop-culture punchlines, so… forgettable. If this had come out in the early ’90s, before advances in special effects started making fantasy films commonplace, it might have felt fresh and edgy. As it is, it feels like a pilot episode of a Disney+ TV series designed to mildly amuse D&D and Magic players and distract folks who like Netflix’s far-superior Disenchanted. The movie seems to think it will strike us as clever and surprising. Instead, it feels like the filmmakers went with all of their first ideas rather than a discerning selection of their best ideas. (Ha ha! Unicorns are pests in this world! Who’d-a thunk it? Hilarious!) There’s something about the character design, the voices, and the personality here that feels … Dreamworks-y. And that isn’t a compliment. In fact, it feels positively sub-Shrek-ian.

And the story really isn’t particularly exciting or interesting: Two elf brothers — Ian and Barley Lightfoot, unremarkable characters voiced unremarkably by go-to celebrities Chris Pratt and Tom Holland — one easily annoyed and one annoying, live at home with their mom and miss their dead dad. They don’t get along. What will bring them together to care understand and care about each other? Ian will experiment with a magical spell that will help them connect with their father in the Great Beyond. (Since audiences loved Coco’s take on the living visiting the dead, why not spin it around and bring the dead into the land of the living?)

It’s an old saying among artists: If you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Onward takes what some will call “inspiration” from, of all things, Weekend at Bernie’s. (Really? Really?) When ordinary Ian’s magical spell short-circuits the first time, bringing dad only halfway back, he will “half” to team up with his obnoxious and overbearing younger brother Barley and succeed in a road trip to find a magic thingmabob in order to finish what he started. Sure, Dad’s Lower Half will be along for the ride, not doing much more than kicking (pun intended) occasional life into the proceedings. And, of course, what they need will be guarded by a big scary monster.

It seems like such a simple reanimation spell — what could possibly go wrong?

Since the movie only half-captures my imagination, I’m left half-heartedly asking questions about it’s half-baked ideas. If the elf brothers have half a chance of resurrecting their dad – even by half — shouldn’t their mom be twice as excited about the prospect than she is here? Why does she seem primarily concerned about getting her sons out of trouble, and relatively unmoved by the possibility that her husband might hold her again?

And why does a character as secondary — third-ary? — as the Manticore (Octavia Butler, for some reason) steal the show and become the most engaging personality in the film?

Don’t mess with the Manticore (Octavia Spencer) or she might get mad and… steal the show.

Argh. Can you feel it? That familiar pressure to fall back on the Easiest Take — that this film just doesn’t live up to the standards of even middle-of-the-pack Pixar work? That it does more to inspire questions about what happened behind the scenes of this production than it does to renew our enthusiasm about the team that surpassed Disney’s standards so spectacularly that Disney surrendered them the controls?

No, no, no — I must resist. Onward!

Instead of assessing this by holding it up against other Pixar films, I’ll compare this to something else: Spielberg’s Ready Player One.

Ready Player One is an honest-to-goodness Steven Spielberg adventure film — a rare and precious event — that, alas, only occasionally shows glimmers of Spielberg’s innovative genius. Like Onward, it’s a movie about how the best days of the Imagination are behind us, but we can still recover some of that magic if we… what? Revel in escapist nostalgia? Give up on vision and mess around with the old ideas?

Something unfortunate has occurred when a Great Artist has to sort through toy boxes full of images and ideas that were inspired by past artists’ best ideas — including his own — and pass off a mash-up as something daring and new. Ready Player One — which never impressed me as literature, although it has a host of passionate fans — proves to be a shaky scaffold on which Spielberg can hang cinematic ideas. It’s a “More is More” strategy that collapses under its own weight. (Even its reanimation of iconic characters goes wrong: The Iron Giant shows up as… a weapon of mass destruction?) The movie is so busy cleverly mixing up pieces of the past that it assumes it is arriving at a powerfully emotional conclusion when, in fact, it’s only delivering echoes of past emotional conclusions. Sure, it’s playful enough to hold our attention, but it ends up having the lasting influence of an Instagram account made of memes that draw upon popular TV shows and movies.

Poor Half-a-Dad — getting dragged along for a bumpy ride in a kind of “Weekend at Barley’s.”

Onward draws power from the always-appealing storyline of children trying to connect with their dead parents. It’s not a bad idea. (A bazillion Harry Potter fans know what I’m talking about.) When such a story follows nuanced characters in a spirit of curiosity, it can lead us to memorable and moving experiences that inspire not only our hearts but our minds. It’s the idea that made last year’s ghost story Light From Light, from writer/director Paul Harrill, interesting and affecting. But here, in the busy-ness of Onward‘s hyperactive geek love, it only manages to stir the emotions by putting us through familiar paces, by reminding us of things we’ve seen and felt before. I’d be surprised to find any moviegoer who would testify that it’s made some kind of lasting, meaningful impression.

I am, I admit, not the target audience for this one. Yes, I write fantasy novels, but I’ve never liked role-playing games or the genre’s grab-bag of Spells For Any Occasion. So while this is probably speaking somebody’s love language, it isn’t speaking mine, and I can’t fault it on that count.

But, as the Anything Can Happen-ness of Onward counteracts any sense of suspense, and as its most exciting set pieces follow far-too-familiar templates — good grief, one key sequence’s reliance on the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a straightforward rip-off, not an homage — I find myself bored.

Not even a unexpected reference to, of all things, Midnight Run can get me excited about Onward.

Steven Greydanus of Decent Films, whose take on family films almost always rings true to me, points to the film’s failure with fantasy tropes, observing that “when it comes to Ian and Barley, there’s really no reason for them to be elves at all; nothing for them to discover about their elvish (or elfin) nature.” But his most insightful take points to another problem, identifying Onward as the latest example of an unfortunate Pixar trend:

It’s not the subjects of Pixar’s recent films I resent — on the contrary. There should be more popular movies, including family films, celebrating average people who aren’t superheroes, superspies, Skywalkers, what have you.

The problem is that Pixar’s movies tend to play as metaphors for the creative rise and fall of Pixar itself. When someone says “Maybe this place isn’t as adventurous as it used to be,” it’s hard not to hear an echo of the filmmakers’ voices. Where Up looked up, Onward merely looks onward.

Beyond that meta-take, there’s just not much meaning in Onward‘s mundane storytelling. It’s relentless pattern of unremarkable crisis and easy resolution gets old fast. And that’s driven by typical crisis-of-confidence stuff: “You can do it!” “No, I can’t!” “Just believe!” “I can’t! Oh, wait… you’re right! If I believe, I can!” Even Disney’s own Dumbo was better at this — because that’s what the story was primarily about. And it’s just a matter of time before the obligatory What We All Know Is Coming happens… just in the inevitable Nick of Time.

I was rooting for Onward all the way through, eager to find something in it that would take on a life of its own.

And, for a moment, one thing does. Surprisingly, it isn’t a character: It’s a vehicle. Finding inspiration in something as mundane as a flat tire, the boys’ galloping road-trip van becomes the movie’s high-point of cleverness. But this is a movie full of elves, magic, wizards, and dragons! And it’s a story about brothers growing with a longing for the father they lost! Why, then, do I come away caring more about the van than I do about Ian, Barley, and their mother?

Pegasus: Just one more reference to van-tage fantasy.

And after that great moment, there’s still so much more movie to go before we end up with the boilerplate Music For Crying Happy Tears By and Hugs All Around. Yes, family is good. Yes, it’s hard not to be moved by the idea of boys getting to re-connect with a father they barely knew. But in a world so busy with derivative distractions, a story about brotherly love isn’t likely to make much of an impression… or make any kind of sense.

It’s a shame that the filmmakers’ efforts to have fun with their most promising idea — a character who is only halfway present — end up seeming so… half-assed.

Onward, then… to whatever Pixar is doing next. Let’s hope it’s more than half-inspired. I want Soul to be whole.