Pixar’s track record is so good any new release feels like a safe bet, but a decade that saw more sequels than original pictures is a worrying trend. Three Cars and four Toy Story movies are more than anybody needed, so you can't but wonder if the Disney acquisition means eventual, total commodification. Fortunately, with Onward and the upcoming Soul, the course is correcting (for now).
Onward imagines a world where wizardry and wonder have given way to modern affectations. Centaurs, pixies, and unicorns abound, but the widespread sorcery of the olden days has been supplanted by television, cars, and high school. The magic isn’t completely gone, though, something two elf brothers are about to learn the weird way.
Awkward Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is mope-celebrating his 16th birthday when his mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) reveals a present from his deceased father: a wizard staff. Big bro Barley (Chris Pratt) knows all about magic thanks to a Dungeons & Dragons-type game, so he’s more than prepared for the accompanying spell that will bring their dad back to life for the day.
But Barley doesn’t possess the innate magical gift, so Ian gives it a go. He starts to conjure their father—but of course, things go haywire, and only Dad’s disembodied, khaki’d legs make it back. With the clock ticking, Ian and Barley embark on an epic campaign to finish the spell and bring their dad back whole
There’s something about this good old-fashioned quest movie that really hits the spot. The Campbell monomyth structure has been used to death, but movies like Onward hammer home that the success of any hero’s journey boils down to novel execution. Even without the most surprising overall plot, Onward’s turns and emotional conclusion elevate what could have been a color-by-numbers adventure story.
Whether Ian and Barley are confronting a manticore-turned-restaurateur, doing battle with a goofy-faced dragon, or just fighting with each other as odd-couple siblings are prone to do, Onward puts fun spins on old struggles. Pixar probably could have explored their hybrid mythology a bit more, although there’s also something refreshing about a sub-two-hour runtime—especially after the Coco/”Frozen” short debacle.
Onward further achieves that sense of novelty by playing with bizarre elements in a way other modern kids’ movies don’t. Casting spells to bring your dead dad back is one thing, but leading his severed legs through ancient perils with a retractable dog leash is another level of strange. It works both because it’s funny and because, as always, Pixar grounds its more unusual qualities with complex “human” relationships. Barley and Ian’s kinship can feel clichéd at times, but it always feels real. And when the third act hits its emotional stride, their brotherly love becomes really special. (Pixar’s never been afraid of difficult moments, so don’t be surprised when the tears start flowing.)
Onward might not be the greatest movie Pixar has ever released, but there’s still plenty of magic. This is a welcome return to original storytelling.
Director: Dan Scanlon
Theater: Area theaters, now playing