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12 Mar 2020

A Compelling-Enough Quest: 'Onward' Isn't a Great Pixar Film—but It's Still a Lot of Fun

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A scene from Onward. A scene from Onward.

Onward is one of the weirder Pixar releases—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’s still a good time for kids and adults alike, and it packs a nice sentimental punch in its final minutes.

Ian Lightfoot (the voice of Tom Holland) and older-brother Barley (Chris Pratt) are elves living with their mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in a suburban fantasy world also inhabited by trolls and dragons. Their world is now very much like ours (strip malls, smart watches, crappy vans, etc.), but it was once a place of magic full of wizardry and adventure.

On his 16th birthday, Ian gets a note from his father—someone long dead who, in fact, never met his son. Ian’s dad has bequeathed to him and 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 Ian possesses magical powers after they both try the staff. Ian manages to bring his dad back—but only his bottom half—before their magical staff stone explodes. Thus, the clock starts ticking: The boys have 24 hours to go on a quest to find another magical stone, and summon the part of their dad that can actually speak and see things 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, once 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 Scanlon (after Monsters University), 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 it’s never sufficiently explored. It also feels like the film is missing a character or two: While Ian and Barley are fun, the movie could’ve benefited from another character or two along for the ride. The focus seems a little narrow.

Pratt, who did a fine job voicing his character for the Lego movies, is 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 pair, even if they’re not particularly memorable.

While Spencer has some fun moments, supporting turns from Dreyfus, Mel Rodriguez and Kyle Bornheimer barely register. Of course, John Ratzenberger’s voice makes a cameo late in the movie.

This is the first of two Pixar movies coming out this year. The second, Soul, is slated for a June release, and seems to be the more significant of the two. That isn’t a dig on Onward, which is a decent-enough family film, but it’s not the near-perfect entertainment that Pixar films often are.

Onward, while not great, is plenty of fun. 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.

Onward is now playing in both regular and 3-D at theaters across the valley.

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