‘Long ago, the world was full of wonder.” So goes the opening line of Disney Pixar’s Onward, a fantasy adventure film about rediscovering magic in a world that seems to have largely forgotten it.
It’s not a stretch to think that the conceit is emblematic of Pixar’s current status in the world of animation, trying to recreate the effortless charm and whimsy behind some of their strongest achievements. After all, four of their past five films have been sequels, which might suggest a lack of fresh ideas.
While Onward does rely on some of the formulaic factors that bolster most of Pixar’s other efforts, it still retains enough liveliness and lightheartedness to make it a mystical quest worth taking.
Set in a fantasy world inhabited by different types of mythical creatures, our story centers on the elven Lightfoot family led by the widowed Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Her sons, the meek Ian (Tom Holland) and rambunctious Barley (Chris Pratt), have very little memory of their late father.
When Laurel gifts Ian with a wizard staff for his 16th birthday, they jump at the chance to resurrect their father temporarily to make up for lost time. Ian attempts to cast the spell, only to bring back their father’s lower half. With only 24 hours to complete the rest of the spell, Ian and Barley hit the road to find the rare Phoenix Stone that will allow for their father’s complete reincarnation.
Director Dan Scanlon, who previously helmed Monsters University in 2013, doesn’t stray far from the plot elements of other Pixar classics. The attempt to communicate with the deceased recalls the plot of Coco, while the ticking-clock feel that surrounds the road trip narrative calls to mind the adventures found within the Toy Story films.
What feels fresh this time around is the connection between the two brothers, who start out as polar opposites in terms of personality but are drawn closer together in the quest to bring their father back. A big reason their relationship comes through is due to the stellar voice work from Holland and especially Pratt, who have a chemistry that makes their bond as brothers completely believable.
A complaint that I almost never have with Pixar films is in the quality of animation. While Onward doesn’t necessarily look poor per se, it has a certain blandness to its color palette that I wasn’t expecting. Even though its story is set in a magical land that has become more mundane as time has gone on, the settings are more dull and drab than they really need to be to get that point across. Even lackluster efforts like The Good Dinosaur and Finding Dory benefited from top-tier animation. Comparatively, Onward feels like a bit of a step back.
Despite this, there are some visual gags that land beautifully, particularly in the Weekend at Bernie’s-esque way the Lightfoot brothers find ways to disguise the fact that their father is missing from the waist up.
The conceit that this world is inhabited by mythical beings who have traded their magical powers for the comforts of consumerism is an inspired one, but the movie doesn’t dig into this theme as much as it could. Instead, it focuses on the inevitable obstacles that the two brothers encounter on the road, which makes for an amiable if unadventurous movie.
Onward is more sturdy and reliable entertainment from the best in the business, even if it leaves a bit too much on the table.
Coming to theaters this weekend
The Way Back, starring Ben Affleck and Al Madrigal, follows a former basketball star turned alcoholic who looks for a path to redemption as he’s offered a coaching job at his alma mater.
Emma, starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn, puts a twist on the classic Jane Austen novel about a young woman who can’t stop meddling in the love lives of those around her.