There is magic in just about every Pixar movie, whether it be a floating house, a trip inside the human brain, or toys that come to life. That magic is best when it relates to human emotions and experience. Think about how a lone trash collecting robot falls in love. Pixar has a knack for blending the routine with the fantastic.
Onward takes magic literally. Set in a fantasy world of mythic creatures, the film follows two brothers on an adventure. The world of Onward is one where society has forgotten the magic in the their world. Routine life has taken over: centaurs have lost their speed and now drive cars, pixies are now bikers and unicorns have become pests. While that may sound like a mixture of the routine with the fantastic, the mix here is less magical. The theme may be about forgetting the magic in the modern world but they kind of forgot the magic.
Tom Holland voices Ian Lightfoot, an awkward teenage elf who struggles making friends. His rocker brother Barley (Chris Pratt) believes in old magic but is a bit of a slacker. The brothers are raised by their overprotective mother after their father died years earlier. Ian has never met his father and he wants nothing more. When their mom brings out a special gift for Ian's sixteenth birthday, it kicks off a magical adventure. Their father left him a wizard's staff, a gem and a spell that will bring him back for one day. Magic requires confidence so when Ian tries to cast the spell, his confidence lets him down and only the bottom half of their dad is brought back.
The brothers hit the road in Barley's van with their dad, now just a pair of pants, to find another gem and try the spell again. Their father can only communicate them by tapping his foot. This odd choice of having the emotional core of the film center around an animated pair of pants cripples the film. Instead of the kind of emotional punch Pixar films usually carry, Onward never strikes. The film often feels like it never shifts from its first act into something more substantial. While there are plenty of fun detours, the overall experience isn't impactful.
Holland is fun as Ian but Barley feels written for Jack Black instead of Chris Pratt. The character needs a bit more silliness to the voice acting. Octavia Spencer is a blast as mythical monster who know runs a family restaurant. Onward is far from the worst Pixar film, looking at you Cars 2 & 3, but it still feels less than the usual quality the studio delivers. The third act comes together nicely and does move towards a powerful connection between Ian and Barley but it feels too little too late.