In one crucial respect, “Onward” marks a great leap forward for Disney-related animation: It’s the father who’s dead this time instead of the mother.
That long-running cultural joke — what’s up with all the single dads in Disney movies? what did they do with the moms? — is flipped on its head in ”Onward,” a movie that addresses brotherly rivalries and sorrows with an intensity similar to (if more grown-up than) the studio’s 2013 mega-hit “Frozen.”
“Onward” isn’t actually a Disney movie, of course: It’s from Pixar, the parent company’s superior digital animation subsidiary. But it’s getting harder to tell the two styles apart, and this may be the most generic Pixar movie to date. That doesn’t make it at all bad, merely average. Still, saying “Pixar” and “average” in the same sentence just feels wrong.
The film is set in a faerie-land where the magic has long been replaced by technology; it’s our 21st-century world, more or less, but the characters have pointy ears and blue skin. (There are unicorns, too, but they’ve gone feral and are foraging out of garbage cans to survive.) Tom Holland, the most recent Spider-Man, voices the lead role of Ian Lightfoot, a shy-guy high school freshman, and Chris Pratt channels his inner Jack Black as Barley Lightfoot, Ian’s raucous, embarrassing older brother.
The family’s still reeling from the death of the boys’ father when Barley was 3 and Ian was in utero, and while mom Laurel does her best to keep the family together (and Julia Louis-Dreyfus does her best with her dialogue), she’s still a clueless if loving figure.
Barley’s a Dungeons & Dragons role-playing-game fanatic who likes to talk in bogus Renaissance Faire-speak; it’s one of the mild conceits of “Onward” that the game is based on actual magick and spells that have fallen into disuse. A wizard’s staff and a long-lost note written by the father before his death raises the possibility that he might be resurrected, just for one day, if the brothers cast the spell right.
Mid-movie spoiler: They get it half right, which means they get half a dad — the lower half. By far the funniest and most inspired touch in all of “Onward” is the slapstick involving this living, mobile pair of trousers — shades of the classic Dr. Seuss tale “What Was I Afraid Of?” (or, as millions of traumatized children know it, “The Runaway Pants”). When the boys stuff a jacket and attach the flip-floppy top to dad’s wayward bottom, it feels like we’re entering a pixelated Pixar version of “Weekend at Bernie’s.”
No such luck. “Onward,” as the title suggests, becomes a linear gamer’s quest, as the brothers head on a journey to find a gemstone necessary for the spell to finish working. This involves adventures both classic — a drawbridge over a yawning abyss, an angry dragon — and amusingly modern. A map must be found at the Manticore’s Tavern, but the tavern is more like an Olive Garden now, and the Manticore (Octavia Spencer) is a harried shift manager who has long since lost her roar.
That balancing act between the eldritch-elf stuff and the film’s “modern” world both provides the laughs and keeps “Onward” earthbound. The oddest character might be Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), a policeman and Laurel’s boyfriend who’s also a centaur, making this movie perhaps the first studio film to press the case for interspecies relationships. Lena Waithe and Ali Wong voice another pair of cops and Tracey Ullman gets a cameo as a lizard-like pawn shop owner. They’re brief diversions from the fraternal rumpus at the movie’s center.
The problem with “Onward” isn’t the ragged-but-right message that brothers stick together even when they’re driving each other crazy. (And, really, Pratt’s Barley is obnoxious above and beyond the call of duty.) It’s that the movie is almost wholly lacking in the Pixar touch — that extra oomph of wit, invention, creative craziness, darkness, depth of feeling, whatever, that makes the company’s products among the very few items manufactured for children in our sold-out popular culture to not feel like products.
There have been lesser Pixar movies before: “Monsters University,” “Incredibles 2,” the entire run of “Cars.” “Onward” is the first that feels like it could have been made by any other animation studio. Most grievous is the absence of the visual cleverness that has become a house style, from the bendy humanoid shapes of “The Incredibles” to the post-apocalyptic trash-heaps of “WALL-E” to the aerial ballets of “Up” to the day-glo Day of the Dead underworld of “Coco.”
Should you take the kids? Of course. They’ll have a perfectly nice time, and maybe the boys will stop giving each other noogies for a bit. What they won’t do, most likely, is remember “Onward” after a week or two, and that is a sea change. How ironic that the Pixar film about magic turns out to be the least magical of all.
Directed by Dan Scanlon. Written by Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin. With the voices of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 102 minutes. PG (action/peril, mild thematic elements).