Review: “Onward”

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Pixar Animation’s “Onward” is what is probably the studio’s most personal film wrapped in a fantasy adventure.  Director and co-writer Dan Scanlon based on the story on the relationship he had with his brother after their father’s passing when they were children.

“Onward” is set in a world that is modern, but inhabited by mythical creatures.  Magic used to be everywhere, but as technology began to make certain tasks quicker and easier, creatures stopped using their magic, and it became obsolete.  The story begins in the town of New Mushroomton and centers around the Lightfoots, an elf family that consists of mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), high school misfit Ian (Tom Holland), and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt), who is obsessed with magic and is seen by many in the community as being kind of a screw up.  On Ian’s 16th birthday, his mom presents him with a gift left by his father (who passed away when he was a baby and who he doesn’t remember) for him and his brother after both came of age.  That gift is a magic staff, a gem, and a spell that will bring their father back for one day.  But when the spell messes up and only brings back their father’s body from the waist down, Ian and Barley have one day to go on a quest to find another one of the rare gems that will allow them to complete the spell and see their dad.

Ian (Tom Holland) imagines what it would be like to meet his dad in “Onward”

Sometimes, the pacing of the story and the quest aspect overtake its more emotional themes.  The main plot involves Ian, Barley, and dad driving around in Barley’s sketchy van (which he calls Guinevere) following clues from Barley’s favorite role-playing game, which he insists is based on historical fact.  Ian, who apparently inherently possesses the gift of magic, reluctantly practices his spellcasting along the way, under Barley’s enthusiastic tutelage.  There’s also a subplot involving a curse that the boys don’t know about, and which their mom—with the help of Corey (Octavia Spencer), a once-fearsome manticore who is now the owner of a Medieval Times-esque restaurant—tries to find the solution to before they unleash it.  It’s entertaining, but the action overtakes the character development in a way that doesn’t make Ian’s realization at the end of the movie feel fully earned.  It also feels like the filmmaker’s didn’t take full advantage of the movie’s premise.  A brief introduction tells the viewer how magic used to be everywhere and now it isn’t, but we don’t see enough of how this world works to get a sense of how things have changed on a larger scale from beginning to end.  Some of the things that pop up throughout the film are really fun—the idea that unicorns, which we perceive to be beautiful, majestic creatures, are actually nasty nuisances that eat garbage, for example—but I don’t think the movie is as clever as it could be, or as it thinks it is.

Brothers Barley (Chris Pratt) and Ian (Tom Holland) go on a magical quest in “Onward”

At the same time, it’s appropriate in a way that this epic quest remains intimate, since the film is really about this family, and Ian coming to terms with the fact that he may never have known his father, but his brother—who he initially resents—has been there for him all along.  The climax will pull at your heartstrings as much as any Pixar film.  The movie is also about the insecure Ian gaining self-confidence, and we do get a good sense of his growth and personal journey over the course of the story.

The voice actors are perfectly cast, with Holland imbuing Ian with the same awkwardness he’s already given to Peter Parker in the “Spider-Man” movies.  Other voice actors include Mel Rodriguez as Colt Bronco, a centaur police officer who is Laurel’s boyfriend, Tracey Ullman as a gremlin pawn shop owner, and Lena Waithe and Ali Wong as police officers.  The design of the characters and environments is well done and blends together the modern world with the fairytale (the skyscrapers in the city being topped with turrets, for example).  It’s as beautiful a looking film as you’d expect from Pixar, there just isn’t enough that’s memorable to elevate it beyond “nice-looking” and “entertaining.”

“Onward” eschews a more conventional conclusion for one that is unexpected and feels more authentic to real life, and it’s all the more moving as a result.  The rest of the film doesn’t do enough to earn that ending, however, and that’s where the main issue lies.  Still, “Onward” is a great family film that deals with loss in a way that is accessible for any age.  Just because it isn’t Pixar’s best work, doesn’t mean it’s bad.

Runtime: 102 minutes. Rated PG.

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