EDITOR’S NOTE: With movie theaters locally and across the country closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, Disney announced Friday that “Onward” will be available for purchase on video on demand starting tonight at 8 p.m. E.T. and will begin streaming on Disney+ on April 3.
What if magic was real? Disney-Pixar’s latest animated film “Onward” takes that idea and runs wild with it. The cute kids’ flick about two elf brothers’ life-changing quest treats “Dungeons & Dragons” not as a game, but as history in a world that moved away from magic as technology made life easier.
The heartfelt, funny and family-friendly adventure falls into mid-level Pixar territory. The fantastical but formulaic story doesn’t quite reach the emotional heights of the “Toy Story” films, but it surpasses the uneven “The Good Dinosaur.” It’s a good, but not great entry among Pixar’s esteemed collection of films.
In the modern world, brothers Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) live with their mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), in the suburbs. Ian, a gangly teen struggling with self-confidence, is turning 16, while Barley spends his time immersed in role-playing fantasy games and fixing up his beloved van, Guinevere. The two brothers, whose father died before Ian was born, have little in common.
For Ian’s 16th birthday, Laurel presents him with a gift from their father: a spell to bring their dad back to life for a single day. The brothers attempt to resurrect their father, but only succeed in conjuring him from the waist down. With fewer than 24 hours to spare, Ian and Barley set off on a dangerous quest to restore their dad’s full body, hoping to find some magic along the way.
“Onward” is the first of two Disney-Pixar films set to be released this year, with “Soul” set to bow in June. While “Soul” looks to dive deep into the void between life and death, “Onward” takes a lighter approach. The film addresses the grief of losing a parent in an affecting way that is appropriate for young children. But it doesn’t go as far as “Toy Story 3” in dealing with bigger questions surrounding death.
The animation in “Onward” is colorful, but not as dazzling as other Pixar cartoons. From the endearing elf brothers to Octavia Spencer’s fiery manticore, the fantasy-based design of the characters blends well against the photorealistic backgrounds. It’s more seamless here than in “The Good Dinosaur.” A stunning showdown with a fearsome dragon boosts the final act, but it’s the most memorable sequence in the film.
The magic-themed road trip embraces its creative premise of a world that left mysticism behind. Ian and Barley are surrounded by remnants of magic. There are unicorns digging through trash cans, fairy bikers whose wings don’t work and a tavern turned into a family restaurant. Their mother’s boyfriend, cop Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), is a minotaur but prefers to drive. The film finds humor in the contrast between the wonder of magic and the mundaneness of everyday life.
To go on their quest, Ian and Barley dress up their dad with a baggy top, vest and sunglasses, a move that comes straight out of “Weekend at Bernie’s.” While the similarity to the 1989 comedy looks creepy in the cartoon’s trailer, the concept works well in the film. The brothers use a retractable leash to keep their dad close, a gimmick that draws laughs. When their dad starts dancing in one scene, the sweet moment brings the brothers together.
The core of the film is the relationship between Ian and Barley. Holland and Pratt share a great camaraderie as the sometimes at-odds brothers. While Barley has the magical knowledge, Ian has the magical ability, making them the perfect team. The pragmatic Ian is afraid to stand up for himself, whereas the fanciful Barley cheers on Ian. With both actors appearing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s fun to think of Star-Lord taking Spider-Man under his wing.
But “Onward” is mostly Ian’s story as the quest also becomes one of self-discovery. Ian is repeatedly tested as he learns more spells. It’s easy to root for the shy teen as he learns to wield and control his magical abilities. One imaginative sequence requires Ian to cross an invisible bridge by believing in himself. It’s a great scene that demonstrates Ian’s character growth.
Pratt shines as the ever-encouraging older brother. But the film doesn’t focus on developing Barley as much as it does Ian. At one point, a character calls Barley a “screwup.” Apart from the fixation with his van, the movie really doesn’t go into why Barley would be considered that.
After a middle that can lag, the film rises to the challenge in its emotionally charged third act, which features a surprising turn. “Onward” follows the traditional Pixar formula by activating your tear ducts, so keep some tissues handy. But the story’s resolution could also leave moviegoers with some questions. The movie seems to be leading to one outcome for most of its runtime. But the switch, although still moving, could leave viewers thinking they missed out on an even more emotional moment.
“Onward” conjures enough movie magic to deliver a delightful escape for moviegoers of all ages. The non-sequel film faced a hard path ahead of it, with inevitable comparisons to Disney-Pixar’s body of work. Though “Onward” falls short of Pixar’s best efforts, its heartwarming tale about brotherhood still casts a spell over children and adults alike.
3 out of 5 stars
Rebecca Kivak and Joe Baress write about movies for Take 2 blog. Together, they review current flicks and offer their insights into the latest movie news. Rebecca is a copy editor and page designer at The Times-Tribune. She started her career with Times-Shamrock Newspapers in 2005 and has won several professional journalism awards for page design and headline writing. She also covers NASCAR races from Pocono Raceway. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5126; @TTRebeccaKivak