Pixar releases one of its weirder ones with Onward, a goofy ode to fatherhood, brotherhood and the geek glory of Dungeons and Dragons-type role playing fantasy games.
While it’s not an offering that can be counted among Pixar’s best (Up, Toy Story 3, The Incredibles, Wall-E), it is still a good time for kids and adults alike, and it packs a nice little sentimental punch in its final minutes.
Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) and older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) are living with their mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in a suburban fantasy world inhabited by trolls, dragons and their own species—elves. Their world is very much like ours (strip malls, smart watches and crappy vans) but was once a place of magic full of wizardry and adventure.
On his 16th birthday, Ian gets a note from his father, who is long dead and, in fact, never met his son. Ian’s dad has bequeathed to him and brother Barley a wizard’s staff, along with a spell incantation that can bring him back for 24 hours, giving Ian a chance to finally meet his pops.
The brothers discover that it is Ian who possesses magical powers after they both try the staff. Ian manages to bring dad back—but only his bottom half—before their magical staff stone explodes. Thus, the clock starts ticking on 24 hours until dad’s bottom half disappears before they can summon the top. The boys must go on a quest to find another magical stone, summon the part of their dad that can actually speak and see things, and spend some quality “whole” dad time before he’s off into the great beyond again.
On their quest, the boys encounter a band of angry biker pixies, a dragon made of concrete rubble and a dragon lady with a scorpion’s tail named the Manticore (Octavia Spencer). The Manticore, at one time a majestic, magical beast, now manages a once sacred castle re-themed as a restaurant/arcade.
Onward is the second Pixar directorial effort from Dan Scanion, who also contributed to the screenplay. Even though the film clocks in at 102 minutes, it feels a little rushed. The city Ian and Barley live in is just a backdrop and never sufficiently explored. It also feels like it’s missing a character or two. While Ian and Barley are fun characters, the movie could’ve benefited from another character for the ride. The focus seems a little narrow.
Pratt, who did a fine job voicing his character for the Lego movies, jumps into Pixar land in fine form, sufficiently voicing a character much younger than his actual age. Holland, whose Ian actually looks a little like him, masks his English accent to good effect, as he did in the Spidey movies. They combine to form a winning—if not necessarily overly memorable—pair.
While Spencer has some fun moments, supporting turns from Dreyfus, Mel Rodriguez and Kyle Bornheimer barely register. Of course, John Ratzenberger cameos late in the movie.
This is the first of two Pixar movies coming out this year. The second, Soul, releases in June and seems likely to be the more significant of the two. That isn’t a big dig on Onward. Onward is a decent enough family film, but it’s not the near perfect entertainment Pixar films usually are.
It does have the distinction of being plenty of fun despite its lack of greatness. You have to like a kid movie that has two brothers running around with the bottom half of their dad, who can only communicate by rubbing feet and dancing. There’s a weird edge to Onward that helps it rise above mediocrity and keep Pixar’s goodness streak rolling.