The new Pixar lands in virus-emptied cinemas as the least buzzed about Pixar in years, and in a non-holiday slot that feels vaguely arbitrary. Once - as recently as the back end of this century's first decade - these digimations were special events; now the need to keep Disney's stock price buoyant means another one falls off the production line every few months. You can understand why audiences might have grown blase. Funny thing: Onward appears to fold elements of that creative predicament into its own plot. It takes place around New Mushroomton, a world that started life as a magical kingdom, but which with time was gentrified and homogenised until it now resembles any other American suburbia, albeit one where the residents have blue skin and elfin ears, and the local traffic cop is a minotaur. No-one bats an eyelid, however, because everybody's too busy looking at their phones: "the magic faded away", as the opening narration puts it. Our heroes are two brothers affected in different ways by their father's passing: straitlaced worrier Ian (voiced by Tom Holland), who displays a desperate need for paternal guidance, and overgrown goofball Barley, who's retreated into fantasy role-playing games - the kind of character who would once have been played in live-action by Jack Black, here voiced by new go-to manchild Chris Pratt. When they discover a spell that allows them to spend one more day with their pa, the boys have the chance to rewind the clock and recapture some of that lost magic - and we realise this is an animated analogue to the situation the Pixar bros are themselves in, cast into uncertainty after the removal of John Lasseter for over-aggressive hugging. Is that title not exactly the kind of buzzword new management prints out in 48-point font and attaches to workstation walls as a putative rallying cry?
For a while, we sense everyone's got at least halfway back to where they once were, a feeling visualised in the reanimated dad, who - thanks to a spellcasting glitch - appears only from waistband to shoes. Centralising a character who's just a wobbling pair of slacks is a nice, original touch; sending the boys out on a quest to get the doodad that will allow them to do more with dad less so. What we respond to is what Onward lays over the bare bones of its plot, which is notably more sophisticated and enjoyable than the bulk of our digimated diversions; if Pixar's core viewership has grown blase, this is one instance where it would be the audience's problem, not that of the filmmakers. The characterisation is thoughtful, often vivid, both in dispatches and front and centre. Time has evidently been taken over the once-fearsome Manticore (Octavia Spencer) - part-lion, part-scorpion - who realises the extent to which her claws and sting have been blunted over an especially strenuous shift in the theme restaurant she now manages; for obvious reasons, you sense she may well have become a point of identification for those Pixar staffers who've spent the years since Lasseter's departure debating the necessity of making another Toy Story movie. But they've put in the hours on the central clan, too: the brothers whose interpersonal issues derive from the fact they're different people who happen to share the same DNA, the housemaking mum (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who sets out to bring her boys home and thereby undertakes a quest of her own, the stepdad (Mel Rodriguez) who quietly, poignantly realises things will change in that home if dad #1 returns to full fitness.
For all the film's typically textured and detailed digimation, what co-writer/director Dan Scanlon is really interested in here is the shape of families. In this, Onward is broadly heterodox - it's rare to find a New Disney offering so heavily invested in the father-son bond (which, again, makes me wonder if this isn't peculiarly personal to Pixar's own family issues) - if slightly less square than its predecessors. (There's been some minor brouhaha over the presence of a female traffic cop - voiced by Lena Waithe - who mentions the daughter she's raising with her girlfriend: a fairly cursory gesture towards representation, all told, but also an acknowledgement other things aren't the same as they once were, nor do they have to be.) One reason even a middling Pixar like this presents as superior family entertainment is that it does understand how families work: their internal tensions and the consolations such structures still provide, how they can grow lopsided, and then sometimes right themselves. Scanlon's not as dynamic in exploring those ideas as the great Brad Bird was in his two Incredibles movies: the finale's townsmashing struck me as a little too in awe to the citysmashing of Disney's live-action superhero movies, and the Harry Potterish spellcasting similarly comes to look like secondhand magic. Yet there is a pay-off, and that's due to the attention these animators pay, amid all the superficial action, to the film's emotional core - two bereft, scared, misfit boys, putting (sometimes bashing) their heads together, and coming to figure out a way to move forwards. If mere kids like Ian and Barley can, there's no reason the Pixar brains trust cannot.
Onward is now playing in cinemas nationwide.