The time has come to ask the question of the hour: Has Pixar lost its mojo?
The answer, on the basis of “Onward — opening in theaters March 6 — is yes.
Pixar movies, at their best, are remarkably sophisticated, warmhearted, engaging and complex, seamlessly blending ingredients that appeal to audiences of all ages. Heartfelt, like the “Toy Story” movies, “Finding Nemo” and “Coco.” With elements of social commentary, like “The Incredibles” (parenting and work/life issues) and “WALL-E” (a world literally drowning in garbage). And, at their very best: sublime. The opening sequence of “Up” is a lovely, gentle ode to a happy, fulfilling marriage.
Almost none of that is to be found in “Onward.” It’s noisy, frantic, derivative and simplistic. More remindful of the cash-grabbing “Cars” movies. Pixar’s track record has been spotty from time to time.
For starters, what’s with that title? Tells less than nothing about what the picture is about. The very definition of generic. What we have here is a failure of imagination. What we have here is a kiddie cartoon indistinguishable from the kinds of overexcited animated movies from other studios targeted at undiscriminating young viewers.
This is a picture whose subject, loudly and frequently proclaimed, is magic. But there is precious little of the genuine article to be found in it.
Directed and co-written by Dan Scanlon (“Monsters University”), it’s set in a fantasy world inhabited by elves, unicorns, sprites, dragons, centaurs and other mythic creatures. However, they live in a suburbia of mushroom-shaped houses that have a Hobbiton aspect to them. They commute to work on freeways. They dine at themed family-style, plastic-menu restaurants (karaoke nightly).
So where’s the magic? Well, its heroes are two teenage elf brothers (note the pointy ears and greenish complexions), Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), who set forth on a quest to resurrect their beloved deceased dad by means of a magic spell. That, they hope, will be accomplished by means of a enchanted staff. It’s a birthday gift to Ian from Dad that you could almost swear was found in a dusty closet at Hogwarts.
But the spell goes awry, and they only succeed in bringing back Dad’s nether regions, i.e., pants, shoes and purple socks. Everything from the waist up is not there. Oops. So off they go in Barley’s battered van with Dad’s stumbling animated legs comically blundering around in the back (and yes, that is a little creepy) in a search for a lost magical gem that will be plunked atop the staff/wand and allow for Dad to finally be made whole. But alas, the spell will only last for a single day and then he’ll be gone forever. The clock is ticking.
The brothers are a squabblesome duo, with 16-year-old Ian fretting about his lack of self-confidence and social skills and forever trying to rein in the obstreperous Barley, who’s good-natured and brash in a bull-in-a-china-shop sort of way. Barley is a big fan of role-playing fantasy games and is eager to go a-questing.
The role of dweeby good guy by now fits Holland like a second skin, having essentially played it as Spider-Man and in “Spies in Disguise.” Pratt’s performance is ebullient though a bit too forced.
The notion of yearning to reconnect, if only briefly, with a cherished departed family member is a powerful one, and the picture is at its most effective when it focuses on how much Ian misses his dad, who died before he was born. He fervently wishes to experience that love he never knew. (His widowed mom, voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is a nurturing presence in the boys’ lives.) The intensity of that yearning is such that “Onward” does have its moments when it preys on the tear ducts, but it feels as though it’s stacking the emotional deck in those scenes and not playing quite fair.
The picture concludes with an up-tempo Brandi Carlile tune playing over the end credits. A pleasant way to wrap up a movie that is, sadly, nothing special.
★★ “Onward,” with the voices of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Tracey Ullman, Mel Rodriguez. Directed by Dan Scanlon, from a screenplay by Scanlon, Jason Headley and Keith Bunin. 112 minutes. Rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements. Opens March 6 at multiple theaters.