Onward is the 22nd animated feature made by Pixar Animation Studios, and thus we arrive at a numerically exciting point. For 2010's Toy Story 3, the last movie in that company's virtually uninterrupted early string of medium-defining computer animated films, was their 11th feature, which means they have now been a company that makes generally unexceptional, mediocre filler (with something actively great popping up only very rarely) for exactly as many movies as they were a company that makes generally fantastic masterpieces (with mild missteps popping up only very rarely).

Fittingly, then, Onward is mediocre as all hell. I might go so far as to call it Pixar's most aggressively mediocre feature - the aggression in this case being that all the other contenders for that title (2013's Monsters University, 2016's Finding Dory, 2017's Cars 3) were sequels or prequels, while Onward is an original story. And so it is a fairly direct rebuttal of the common claim that grew increasingly desperate over the course of the 2010s, that all Pixar needed to do in order to get back to their glory days was to stop making so damn many sequels. Now I guess all we have left is that they just need to only let Pete Docter direct movies going forward.

Not the biggest problem, but certainly the most baffling one, is the film's stillborn attempt at world-building. Once upon a time, this was maybe Pixar's greatest strength (give or take their unmatched skill at emotional manipulation - for all its flaws, Onward still managed to get my eyes watery in one late moment): here is what it would be like if a human city was designed around monsters. Here is Paris from a rat's-eye perspect. Hell, even, "here is Route 66 in a world where everything is built for freaky living cars", because whatever criticisms we might levy against Cars and its sequels, they are at least invested in creating full-realised, detailed worlds, even when those worlds are nightmares of illogic. Onward's formula is "here's the suburbs, but people are fantasy creatures". As we are told in opening narration, this is a world that was once a magical kingdom in which elves and trolls and what have you wielded the powers of the cosmos, in an age of rich adventures and epic quests. Then came science, which could do everything that magic could, but with much less effort. And so now the elves and trolls and what have you live in a version of a modern-day U.S. suburb whose most fantastic element is that parts of it seem like the 1980s, while parts of it seem like the 2010s, and this doesn't seem to bother anybody.

This is... why? It's not that Onward does nothing with the fantasy creatures hook: in fact, it comes up with a healthy number of gags that make use of the various beasts' characteristics, and a good many of them land (though virtually all of them are pretty corny). But it still doesn't really seem to matter. It's a surface-level frippery, good for some humorous visuals and nothing more. But this maybe has less to do with the world-building per se than with the way that the whole thing feels pretty much like surface-level frippery. Onward comes from a deeply personal place - it is based in director and co-writer Dan Scanlon's complicated feelings his father dying when he was just a child - but you'd never know that from the final result. The characters and their relationship have virtually no definition, and if they weren't magical beings incongruously wearing sweaters and jeans and all, they'd lose pretty much all of the limited personality they have.

The specifics of the plot: Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), an elf - if the film hadn't gotten around to clarifying that in dialogue, I'd have never known what the hell he was beyond "blue guy with pointy ears and a comically large nose) is turning 16, and like most teenagers in movies, he is a disaster: awkward, cowardly, clumsy, friendless. None of this is helped by having as his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt), a semi-notorious local weirdo who is obsessed with the magical history of this mundane world, and is presently addicted to a tabletop RPG that purports to be exhaustively researched and accurate to the finest details of how things used to be in the past. For his birthday, Ian is getting an especially bizarre gift from his late father, dead before Ian was even born: a wizard's staff and a magical gem. More importantly, there are instructions for a spell that will bring Dad back to life for exactly 24 hours, so he can see his sons all grown up, and chat with them. As it turns out, Ian has just enough spark of magical potential to bring back his father's legs, and just enough self-doubt to screw things up after that. Thus is it is that Ian, Barley, and the lower half of an undead man go on a road trip to find another one of those magical gems, which Barley insists should be thought of as a Great Magical Quest.

This is all perfectly nice, perfectly charming, and perfectly bland. Ian and Barley are both the purest kind of stock characters, and they go through the most rote arcs, and they just don't feel like they have any inner lives to speak of. That the film is able to extract any kind of emotional "aww" moment out of their relationship - as it does repeatedly in the last 20 or so minutes, easily the best part of the movie for that and other reasons (and when was the last animated movie that was at its best during the finale, my God) - is a testament to how well Pixar has perfected dispensing sentimental emotional cues that work at some primordial level. I mean this as a sincere compliment.

Otherwise it is a very fine movie, with all the withering, dismissive irony that can be packed into that foulest of four-letter words. It looks largely terrific, with some wonderful, wonderful lighting effects and evocative spaces that do virtually all of the work in making "fantasyland suburbia" actually interesting, and not just a confusing gimmick; while I have some reservations about the character designs and animation (and especially the way their skin has been textured, which feels rather lifeless and smooth), there's still no missing the fact that this studio has the best tech in CG animation and isn't afraid to show it off frame after frame after frame. The musical score by Jeff & Mychael Danna draws from stereotypical epic adventure motifs and mixes them in with warmer, more sweetly emotional cues, and while it doesn't redeem Onward quite as much as their wonderful score for The Good Dinosaur managed to salvage entire scenes of that particular example of mediocre Pixar, it's at least enough to provide something of the right mood during the most unengaging chunks of exposition in the early going. And the gags are cute.

But it's so lifeless. There's not a single interesting vocal performance, though Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, as Ian and Barley's mom, comes closest (she's the only Pixar veteran with a large role, returning to the fold 22 years after A Bug's Life), and not a single narrative surprise worthy of the name. It's simply uninteresting, doing the bare minimum with its setting and characters to create a functional narrative - I hesitate to crack an obvious joke about how yep, it feels like the magic is all drained out of this world, but that's really exactly what we've got.