I remember watching an extended scene from Pixar’s Onward at last year’s D23 Expo and I thinking it looked pretty weird. Then I reminded myself that Pixar can usually make weird work, with the possible exception of Cars 2, and I promptly psyched myself up for a trip to the theater. And yes, the movie is a little weird. And yes, it’s not Pixar’s best. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good movie.
Set in an urban fantasy setting, where magic has been mostly replaced with modern conveniences, Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) sets out on a birthday adventure with his quest-game obsessed older brother Barley (Chris Pratt). They need to find a Phoenix Gem in order to finish bringing their father back to life for one day after a magic spell goes wrong.
Borrowing more than a little from Weekend At Bernie’s, the brothers set out with only the bottom half of their father, following the clues from Barley’s Quest of Yore card game. Their journey takes them to The Manticore (Octavia Spencer), who gives them their next clue while forgetting to mention the Pheonix Gem is cursed. Laurel Lightfoot (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Ian and Barley’s mother, teams up with The Manticore to find her sons and save them from the curse.
The story of Onward feels intensely personal, and there’s a very good reason why. Director Dan Scanlon and his older brother lost their father when they were very young. In the case of Dan, he was only a year old. The moments that lean into the grieving process for a parent you never really knew are where the movie shines. It’s also where the movie pulls out the always expected Pixar tears. I expect it to be a harder watch for those who have lost a close family member, but perhaps all the more meaningful because of that?
There’s a retro vibe to the film with the Dungeons and Dragons/Magic the Gathering inspiration throughout, all delivered with a certain level of Pixar polish to make it feel current. The voice actors all delivered solid performances, with Pratt serving a little Andy Dwyer, and Holland showing up with a bit of Peter Parker. Of note is the brief but significant moment featuring Officer Specter (Lena Waithe), Pixar’s first openly gay character. If you’re curious as to how this is handled, she merely mentions her girlfriend’s kids. And that’s it. A tiny step forward, but a step nonetheless.
The story meanders a bit, but it doesn’t drag. It also delivers all of the expected laughs and tears. When it comes to cross-generational appeal, I think this film nails it. Onward might suffer from comparison to stronger Pixar films, but it’s a solidly good movie with more than enough heart and humor to make up for any places where the story might be lacking.
You can catch Onward in theaters on March 6, 2020.
Set in a suburban fantasy world, Disney and Pixar’s “Onward” introduces two teenage elf brothers who embark on an extraordinary quest to discover if there is still a little magic left out there. Pixar Animation Studios’ all-new original feature film is directed by Dan Scanlon and produced by Kori Rae—the team behind “Monsters University.”