Onward has been a disappointment at the box office, which is strange because it shares a near-identical story structure with other beloved Pixar films, including the hits Finding Nemo, Inside Out, and Up. All of these movies follow an adventure narrative that bears a distinct resemblance to the original journey story, The Odyssey.
Homer’s epic poem, a sequel to The Iliad, is about the Greek hero Odysseus (or Ulysses for the Romans), chronicling his attempt to return home to Ithaca following the Trojan War. Like Odysseus, Pixar’s protagonists often embark on a dangerous journey into the unknown in pursuit of their goal. The destination is synonymous with their objective, and it’s usually family-related for that sweet emotional payoff. Odysseus wants to see his wife and son again. Finding Nemo’s Marlin goes out into the open ocean to find his son. Carl from Up wants to fulfill his deceased wife’s last wish. And Onward follows the elf brothers Ian and Barley as they set off to find a magical object that will resurrect their deceased father for one day.
As with most Greek heroes, Odysseus’s plight is partially self-inflicted due to his own hubris. His second stop on his travels involves a mishap with a cyclops (a creature also present in Onward) whom he taunts. The cyclops proceeds to invoke the wrath of his father, the sea god Poseidon, and Odysseus ends up lost at sea for much longer than he’d planned. Odysseus succumbs to his own ego and pays for it. The troubles of the Pixar protagonists are likewise rooted in their own character flaws. In Inside Out, for instance, Joy’s overwhelming desire for control leads to her being sucked out of the command center along with Sadness.
In Finding Nemo, Marlin’s overbearing parenting style fosters a rebellious attitude in his son, leading to the younger fish’s kidnapping. Also, Marlin’s distrust of others and overconfidence in his own judgment leads him to persuade Dory into swimming over a trench that looks dangerous, instead of through it as they’ve been instructed. Above the trench, they encounter a colony of jellyfish that nearly ends their journey right then and there. Onward‘s Ian suffers from a tremendous lack of confidence, which ultimately proves to be the real reason he’s unhappy in his day-to-day life.
Once the characters set off on their journey, they are beset by a variety of strange, fantastic obstacles that impede their progress to their goal. Onward‘s Ian and Barley run a gauntlet of classic fantasy riddles and architectural puzzles straight out of Dungeons & Dragons. Then there are the aforementioned jellyfish colony and the sharks from Finding Nemo, the squad of dogs in Up, and the various regions in Riley’s consciousness that Joy and Sadness must navigate in Inside Out.
Greek mythology has its own share of weird wonder, and Odysseus struggles through his fair share of misadventures, from an island of giants to seductive songstress sirens to a witch that turns men into pigs. The key here, and it’s perhaps the reason that these movies can blur together, is these obstacles rarely have much direct impact on the core plot of the film. The heroes are trying to go from point A to point B, and all the hijinks in between are simply roadblocks, rather than, say, forks in the road that force a choice, or unexpected twists in the path.
The emotional climax of these Pixar movies is usually a falling-out between the main character and his or her unwanted companion. When pressured to choose between his house and the bird Kevin, whom Carl knows is in danger, Carl chooses the house, symbolically abandoning the new friends he’s made since the start of his journey. Joy gets a chance to make it back to the command center on her own and leave Sadness behind because she is convinced she’s more important. Ian blows up at his brother Barley for being a screw-up after their journey takes them back to where they started and he believes they’ve wasted their time.
These moments illustrate that the protagonist hasn’t really learned anything from their journey yet. For Odysseus, this moment has to be when he and his crew ignore the warnings of the blind prophet Tiresias and kill the sacred cattle of the sun god Apollo. He suffers divine punishment — a storm from Apollo’s dad, Zeus, that sinks his ship — and ends up stranded on the island of the nymph Calypso for seven years. It should be noted that this island isn’t a terrible place to be stranded. There’s food, shelter, and a gorgeous goddess who’s in love with Odysseus. But it’s not what he wants, and this moment in the story provides a lull in the action for him to reflect.
The Pixar characters go through this moment as well. Carl discovers Ellie’s scrapbook and comes to a revelation, which leads him to assist Russell in saving Kevin. Joy, trapped in the Memory Dump, undergoes a similar revelation about Sadness. After storming off from his brother, Ian reflects and realizes that his brother has given him all the love he’s ever needed and that the thing he wanted — to meet his father — isn’t really what he needs to be happy.
Odysseus’s glorious return home is punctuated with violence as he slaughters the suitors that have been vying for his wife’s hand in marriage while he’s been away. Pixar films avoid the blood and gore, opting instead for those big heartfelt moments of emotional climax that the studio is known for. The characters come together and everyone has a happy ending. It’s a cathartic conclusion that wraps everything up neatly. Onward manages to have things both ways, as Ian uses his newfound magic powers to slay a magic dragon and also gives his brother the closure he’d never gotten with their father.
Following the structure of The Odyssey makes for nice, concise, close-ended stories with strong emotional arcs, but even the classics can wear thin after a while. Pixar has been repeating this journey structure for nearly two decades, and one can only watch so many unhappy protagonists embark on adventures with companions they dislike, braving miscellaneous and largely unimportant perils before reaching some self-realization that turns their life around before one starts to see where these things are going.
Onward is particularly egregious in this regard because Ian and Barley’s adventure is a mismatched collection of generic fantasy tropes with little to connect the dots besides some references to Dungeons & Dragons. Perhaps it is Pixar’s endless return to this blueprint that made Onward out to be one of the studio’s lesser efforts.