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in Onward, a middle-aged, blue-skinned elf mom in a white cable-knit sweater squirts water on a hyper, green-and-yellow pet house dragon that’s breathing fire while leaning on her smiling teenage elf son Ian. Image: Pixar/Disney

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Onward brings originality back to Pixar — sort of

It’s a new story instead of a sequel or spinoff, but it can’t stand among Pixar’s most daring work

The anticipation for Pixar’s new animated fantasy Onward has been recklessly high. The rambunctious trailers have been promising, but the company’s history is more of a telling factor. Back in 1995, when Pixar released Toy Story, the first all-CG-animated feature film, the company planted its flag as the leading innovator and trend-setter in American animated cinema.

But after an unimpeachable run of deeply emotional, visually daring hits, including four Best Animated Feature Academy Awards in a row for Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3, Pixar repeatedly stumbled. Its original films Brave and The Good Dinosaur suffered troubled productions and a series of telling compromises. Its bigger creative gambles, Inside Out and Coco, both won Oscars and kept the creative flames burning. But they arrived amid a long string of sequels (Cars 2, Monsters University, Finding Dory, Cars 3, Incredibles 2, Toy Story 4) that all had their charms, while still giving the impression that Pixar was losing faith in its own original storytelling.

And with increasingly high-quality competition from other animation studios cashing in on the market Pixar created, Pixar’s films stopped definitively dominating the field. Which is why Onward comes with such outsized expectations — and why its mostly mild successes make it feel like one of Pixar’s comparative disappointments. It’s colorful and charming, and it’s certainly unique in its story specifics. But it also feels safe, simple, and soft-edged compared to Pixar’s wilder swings for the outfield.

Blue-skinned animated elf brothers Ian, who looks nervous, and Barley, who looks smug, sit in the front seats of a blue van together in Onward Image: Pixar/Disney

The first of two Pixar original stories hitting theaters in 2020 (Soul is due out in June), Onward creates an entirely new world from scratch, in a way Pixar’s films haven’t since WALL-E. It’s a surprisingly shallow place, though. In its final moments, Onward abruptly pours on the familiar Pixar spirit, drawing on the characters’ deepest desires to deliver an unexpectedly emotional finale. But the road toward that moment is bumpy (often literally), and more about slapstick and slick surfaces than about the kind of rich character-building Pixar is best known for.

Marvel Cinematic Universe stars Chris Pratt and Tom Holland voice brothers Barley and Ian Lightfoot, a pair of purple-skinned elves whose lives have been defined by their father’s death. Barley only has a few bare memories of their father, but Ian wasn’t born when he died, and has no memories of him at all. He obsesses over his missed opportunities, up until his 16th birthday, when his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives him and Barley a present: a magical staff and a spell that will resurrect their father for a day. But the spell only half-works, leaving the boys running around with their father’s disembodied legs in tow. They end up on a desperate quest to find a magical gem to power the staff and complete the spell before 24 hours are up and they miss their chance entirely.

The setting and story veer much further into the realm of goofy fantasy tropes than anything Pixar’s done before — the studio’s movies often rely on science fiction or fantasy elements, but even Coco (about a boy traveling to the land of the dead), Ratatouille (about a rat who wants to cook), and the Toy Story movies (about living toys) are all rooted in recognizable versions of the real world. Onward, on the other hand, entirely reskins reality for a version of the world where a centaur cop, a manticore restaurateur, and a pixie biker gang operate alongside cyclopes, fauns, and kobolds doing similarly mundane work. A pocket history laid out in the opening scenes establishes that this world was once ruled by epic-fantasy-style magic, complete with wizards and fighters trouping around the realm on heroic quests. But eventually, people discovered that technology was easier and more reliable than magic, and freeways and fridges replaced flying spells and cold-cantrips.

The mixture of modern elements and medieval-fantasy imagery (Ian has a cellphone, but he also lives in a neighborhood of houses built into colorful mega-mushrooms) runs a serious risk of taking the story into Shrek territory. Director Dan Scanlon and his writing partners Jason Headley and Keith Bunin try to avoid the comparison by steering clear of Shrek-esque fantasy versions of real-world brands (like Farbucks Coffee), or any sort of cheesy wordplay. They pile on the action, with plenty of slapstick comedy built around Dead Dad’s lower half stumbling around, but they avoid the kind of one-liners and referential banter that usually characterize jokey modern-fantasy worlds.

But they don’t always find enough specificity of their own to make Onward’s world feel real or recognizable, outside the immediate sphere of Ian and Barley’s orbit. The two brothers are both broad types — Ian as a spindly, shy dork, and Barley as a bluff, hearty bro-type. (One of the film’s great low-key gags is that Barley reads as a jock, but he’s utterly obsessed with the endless minutiae of a D&D-like fantasy game called Quests Of Yore, and he frequently nerds out over its minifigs, stat cards, and rulebook.) They only come into focus as more than functions of their quest toward the end of the final act, which is also where the film’s themes finally come clear as well. A late-stage montage and a series of plot callbacks have to do a lot of heavy lifting to establish emotions that should have been more present in the story all along.

Leaving aside the longing for a form of emotional engagement equal to that of Pixar’s most powerful movies, Onward still plays like a solidly entertaining yarn. For audiences who already read fantasy novels or play tabletop or console RPGs, there won’t be a lot of surprises, as Ian and Barley go from one encounter to another, leveling up their skills, fighting or tricking NPCs, and acquiring items that will be useful to them down the line. There’s some minor amusement in the way Barley keeps drawing useful facts and inspiration from his Quests of Yore accessories, but virtually no major twists along their route.

A skinny, blue-skinned animated teenage elf wrestles with a magical that’s shooting a bolt of blue energy into the ground in his room, as his huskier elf brother looks on in surprise in Onward Image: Pixar/Disney

What the film has instead is a rough-and-ready amiability. The character design is bulbous and cartoony, with just a few models for background characters, who mostly look like they could walk right into the Monsters, Inc. series without anyone batting their (single central) eye. The society around Ian and Barley is equally simplistic — unlike the species differentiation in, say, Zootopia, there’s no reason to think that an Onward centaur would be any more or less suitable for a given job than a faun. But nearly everyone in the story seems cheerful and supportive. Apart from a venal pawn shop broker or a crabby karaoke fan here and there, the film entirely lacks anything resembling a villain, and even the inevitable, much-foreshadowed Final Boss is more a terrain challenge than an antagonist. The end result is a movie where the stakes feel personal, but still fairly low, and the surge of revelatory feeling at the end is sweet, but a little unearned.

There’s nothing wrong with this model of film for Pixar. It’s exciting to see the studio finally creating a new world, and the brotherly team-up at the film’s heart feels like a new model for a collection of storytellers that have focused on unlikely found families as often as they’ve focused on flesh-and-blood families. Onward takes a few representation steps forward as well, with a female character (voiced by Lena Waithe) who casually mentions her girlfriend; a prominent role for Octavia Spencer; and a pair of middle-aged-lady characters who get some nice bonding moments together and some action scenes of their own — both a rarity in animated features.

But Pixar may just not have its old narrative power anymore. And if that turns out to be true, it’s probably fine. The studio spent its first decade or so changing the industry, inspiring an environment where this kind of original setting, creative characters, and really weird humor all feel like requirements, instead of feeling like above-and-beyond work. Maybe Pixar’s greatest achievement has been creating an original new world where Pixar movies don’t feel special anymore.

Onward arrives in theaters on March 6.