With Onward, Pixar is Still Stuck in the Suburbs

Pixar’s Onward just hasn’t grabbed me so far. The big gimmick of the film is that it takes high fantasy creatures, magic, and tropes and transposes them onto modern suburbs exactly like those you’d see near any American city. This is played like it’s a clever twist — and for any other studio, it might be. But it’s only Pixar’s latest return to the suburbs. Many, if not most of them films are either literally set in the subrubs (Inside Out, Toy Story) or else take fantastical settings and make them feel like suburban America (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Monsters University). Hell, the inciting incident of Up is the urbanization of Carl Fredricksen’s formerly suburban neighborhood. 

American suburbs are, I think, the least interesting place in the entire world to set a story. Less a setting and more a void where a setting should be, they are consistently used by screenwriters to convey a sense of deceptive idyll, places that seems calm and peaceful until — get this — we find out there’s actually something weird going on. Pixar seems to use suburbs for the opposite effect, like they think audiences will only be able to relate to a new project if it has the soothingly bland touches of stereotypical American family life.

It’s not even that the Pixar movies featuring the suburbs are the worst ones. But if you were a kid and imagining what fantastical world you’d want to visit, would you pick the world of Toy Story or Brave? The Incredibles or WALL-E? Inside Out or Ratatouille? It’s a question of the suburbs you already know vs. magical Scottish highlands, a self-sufficient spaceship, or the restaurants of Paris. A setting doesn’t make or break a movie, but it should at least be additive.

Pixar has never had a box office flop and they’ve had very few negative reviews, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Onward underperformed. The premise of transposing a fantasy world into American suburbs feels uniquely unambitious, an idea that merits nothing more than a shrug. Which is a shame, because fantasy is a rich, popular genre that deserves better.

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Even if the ads for Onward showcased actual jokes instead of joke-adjacent dialogue (what if a dragon was a dog! What if a lawn gnome mowed the lawn! Eh? Eh?), or a main character design that wasn’t the blandest thing imaginable, I’d still have trouble seeing any value in it. Pixar’s vision of the suburbs gets less compelling every time, and suburbia isn’t all that compelling to begin with.

Pixar films have taken us to wondrous locales, so it seems a shame to come back again and again to rendering the world of suburban America in increasingly high detail. Maybe Onward will turn out to be great and I’m just overreacting to a mediocre marketing campaign. But I don’t have a lot of hope. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer charming cartoon adventure films to take place somewhere a little less old-fashioned.


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