A very strange, entirely unexpected sight greets anyone who buys a ticket to see Pixar’s new animated comedy Onward. Before any elves, unicorns, and magically animated legs find their way to the screen – seriously, the premise of this film is bonkers – a boldly-printed title card pops up with text that goes something like this: “Disney happily welcomes The Simpsons into the family!”
Then a Simpsons short – titled Playdate with Destiny – plays. It mostly involves baby Maggie making googly eyes at a slick-haired boy she meets at the playground, leading her to dream in her crib about the many adventures she might have with this new love of her life. Just her luck, though, the next few times she’s driven to the playground Homer’s behind the wheel instead of Marge and he keeps taking her to the wrong place, a playground meant for older kids. What must young Maggie do to reunite with her apparent soulmate?
Buy a ticket and you’ll find out.
Spoiler, it has a happy ending.
Now, the existence of a Simpsons short is not what makes this so strange. Matt Groening and his crew have done this kind of thing before, putting a Maggie-centric short called The Longest Day in front of Ice Age: Continental Drift in 2012 before Fox revived it a year later and put it in front of The Life of Pi…for some reason.
Moreover, most Pixar movies come with their own short. In fact, ask some animation aficionados and they’ll tell you the shorts are better than the films! That’s…well, that’s an incredibly loaded statement, but if you’re comparing a short to something like Cars 3 then, yeah, it’s probably better. A Coco or Inside Out, though? Nope. Not buying it. But now I’m getting off on a tangent.
The point is animation buffs look forward to each new Pixar short. Long before Toy Story, making short films as tech demos for Steve Jobs to hopefully sell around Silicon Valley kept Pixar going through some seriously lean years. So, shorts are in the company’s DNA. In the decades since then, the shorts have frequently served as important stepping stones and tech experiments for in-house animators working their way up the latter. On the other side of Hollywood, whenever the mood strikes The Simpsons people just right, they make a theatrical short of their own.
These two things don’t logically have any other connection. However, now thanks to craven corporate synergy a Pixar movie – Onward – has come with its own Simpsons short. That’s right. Pixar’s first original film since Coco (2017) and just its second of the last five years couldn’t completely escape the scourge of Hollywood IP addiction. For shame, Disney!
I say that in mock outrage, of course, because life is too short and the world too screwed up right now for me to get too worked up over this. It strikes me as an inherently awkward, but understandable effort to genuinely welcome The Simpsons into the Disney family and use a kid-friendly story to introduce a new generation to Matt Groening’s yellow-skinned Flinstones. It’s a temporary hiccup in the ongoing Fox-to-Disney transition, a sacrificial lamb on the altar of corporate consolidation. Now, if Soul – Pixar’s other 2020 original – also comes with its own Simpsons short? I’ll be the first with a hearty WTF.
So, for reasons largely outside of Pixar’s control Onward has its own Simpsons short, and at first glance, Playdate with Destiny doesn’t feel at all relevant to Onward, neither in appearance (2D vs. 3D) or themes (a meet-cute interrupted vs. familial loss and lingering grief). By the time you walk out of Onward, however, you better recognize the unintentional irony in the pairing. Disney took a short from a TV show that arguably has zero relevance for little kids and put in front of a Pixar movie that feels more made for adults – or at least teenagers – than kids. After all, Onward’s central protagonist is 16-years-old and features an emotional climax that – as first argued by Amanda Dobbins on The Big Picture podcast – assumes at least a grade school-reading level from its audience.
Let me explain that last part, and warning – I am about the spoil Onward’s ending.
Onward’s main character Ian – voiced to nerdy-teen perfection by Hollywood’s go-to actor for that kind of thing right now, Tom Holland – creates a To-Do list of things he wants to do with his dad on their first and final day together. It includes things like “Learn How to Drive” and “Share a Heart to Heart.” At the end, as Ian re-examines the list and reaches an emotional epiphany your ability to actually read what’s on his little piece of paper seriously helps sell the drama.
It’s…well, without going into specifics, it’s this movie’s Pixar moment. You know the type I’m talking about – the point in the story where all the little kids in the theater suddenly wonder why their parents are crying like they just figured out how much it’s going to cost to send them to college. Not all Pixar moments are created equal, of course, but it’s what we’ve come to expect from the house that Luxo Jr. built.
Full ending spoiler starts now
Onward’s Pixar moment hits especially hard for anyone who has lost a father or is old enough to understand that biology isn’t always the sole determining factor in who we regard as our parent. Director Dan Scanlon uses flashbacks to further help sell the point, but as Ian goes down his checklist and realizes he’s already done all of those things with older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) the camera lingers on the page. It’s assumed the kids in the audience will pick up on the point and not ask: “What does that say, Daddy?”
Thus concludes the part where I spoil the ending.
Playdate with Destiny, meanwhile, actually has zero dialogue whatsoever since it’s from Maggie’s POV, but in classic Simpsons fashion, nearly every other frame has some kind of joke-Easter Egg, almost always in the form of funny signs in the background. Pay special attention, for example, to the names of the different playgrounds. This is, of course, a hallmark of not only The Simpsons but every single Matt Groening show (see: Futurama, Disenchantment) and many of those that came in his wake (see: Family Guy, BoJack Horseman, Big Mouth). It’s part of TV animation’s now-longstanding MO to specifically reward older audiences – to truly get it, they can be teenagers or adults, but definitely not little kids.
Playdate with Destiny and Onward each try to serve multiple masters, though. Maggie has a slapstick comedy adventure with plenty of gags for kids to enjoy, and Onward features a scene where Barely is shrunk and suddenly speaks with an adorably hilarious high-pitched voice. At their core, however, each film skews a little older than usual for a Pixar theatrical outing. Disney most certainly didn’t intend it to work out that way, of course, but Playdate with Destiny and Onward make a lot of sense together.
Ah, the happy accidents of corporate synergy.