In the five years since Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur, Pixar has released only one original feature film: Coco, about a boy who magically journeys to the Land of the Dead and spends a night with a departed paternal ancestor, but must return home at dawn.
Onward, from Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), has twice the boys and half the departed paternal ancestor. The magical journey goes the other way, with the late father returning to the world of the living, and the deadline is sunset rather than sunrise.
If the reunion is more elusive and less emotionally satisfying, in a way that may be the point. What is equally stressed in both stories is the importance of holding onto memories.
Onward seems woven of two disparate creative threads. The first is an emotional yarn involving two teenaged brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), whose father died when they were very young. This thread was spun from Scanlon’s reflections on his own experience of losing his father when he and his younger brother were little.
The other thread is about the world Ian and Barley live in: a fantasy world in which obsessive teenagers like Barley play fantasy role-playing games, because real magic has mostly gone out of their world.
Magic, it seems, was difficult, and technology was easier, and so little by little the world became less wondrous and more prosaic — though the film is animated by the hope that there’s still a little magic left.
Whatever the origins of this thread, it seems to be of a piece with the anxieties of Cars 3 and Monsters University, in which Lightning McQueen worried about being a has-been, or worse, a sellout, and Mike Wazowski came to terms with leaving greatness to others and being okay just being okay.
The bygone era of Pixar greatness was an era that celebrated greatness, excellence and achievement. Sully and Lightning McQueen were top competitors in their fields. The Incredibles and Remy the rat wrestled with how to express their extraordinary gifts in worlds where they weren’t always appreciated.
For a decade or so now, though, it seems the magic has mostly gone out of the Pixar world.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.