Starting with the bouncy desk lamp that introduces every Pixar movie, America’s most beloved animation studio excels at refashioning familiar material with fresh emotion. That formula — whether it involves cheerful toys or snarky closet monsters — yields such satisfying results that even a lesser Pixar movie can radiate vision. Onward underscores this point: it’s not a star of the Pixar canon, but this big-hearted reworking of fantasy and emotional familial bond embodies the Pixar touch so well you can’t help but root for its success and enjoy the ride. But context is key, though. The spectrum of quality for Pixar movies ranges from decent-but-underwhelming to true masterpieces, and Onward falls somewhere in the middle. A solid new addition, it lacks the psychological sophistication of Inside Out, the marvelous slapstick of WALL-E, or the narrative foundation of the Toy Story franchise. Still, director Dan Scanlon has found his own intimate twist.
The film’s ingenuity starts in the opening minutes with a concise montage that establishes a remarkable backdrop with its fair taste of Dungeon & Dragons, Harry Potter, and How to Train Your Dragon. Long ago, magic ruled this land, as wizards armed with powerful spells routinely saved the day. That stopped when modern technology took charge and rendered wands irrelevant. Endearing visual gags are as swift and concise as the pitch that probably sold this premise: Who needs a spell when you have lightbulbs and public transit? At its core, Onward is a platonic love story between brothers. Tom Holland voices Ian Lightfoot, a scrawny newly sixteen-year-old elf with some serious self-confidence issues. He lives an uneventful suburban life in New Mushroomtown, under the loving gaze of his single mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and his college-aged, slacker older brother, Barely (Chris Pratt, essentially embodying the energy of a puppy golden retriever). Barely drives around in a beat-up, decaled van he calls Guinevere, blasting cheesy metal; were this not a PG family film, opening its doors would presumably release an enormous cloud of smoke. This shiftless goofball also loves the film’s equivalent of Dungeons & Dragons, which he insists is historically accurate.
As we learn through some very clumsy exposition (seriously, a stranger just comes up and basically blurts it out), Ian and Barley lost their father years earlier. But on Ian’s sixteenth birthday his Mom dusts off a gift that his Dad left behind for this very occasion: a wizard’s staff, a glowing gem, and a spell that, if performed correctly, will bring the senior Lightfoot back for twenty-four hours of quality time. Ian, as it turns out, has some of that long-forgotten magic in his blood, but because he hasn’t yet learned to believe in himself, he only half pulls off the spell. In that, he bring his father back as a pair of khakied, disembodied legs — the bottom portion of a man, unable to see, hear, or talk but capable of communicating with his boys via taps on their feet. It’s a morbid and strangely affecting plot turn. It also promises a more madcap movie than the one Onward becomes. Scanlon’s previous directorial outing was Pixar’s Monsters University, which was basically a monster-centric spoof of ’80s college comedies, down to its formulaic Revenge of the Nerds underdog-frat storyline. This time around, though, he’s drifting into the Chris Columbus lane of mostly wholesome teenage misadventure, with some faint echoes of other ’80s fare. This isn’t a wholly unwelcome approach especially with the voice talent assembled. The two leads pump some soul and personality into their stock roles, developing a credible sibling rapport as Ian and Barely set out on a quest to find another “phoenix stone,” complete the spell, and maybe fill in the top half of their dead father.
Yet Onward can sometimes find itself in moments where its stuck in first gear, as our central duo veers off into mild detours. During one pit stop, the brothers stumble into an infamously imposing tavern that’s been turned, eons later, into a cutesy, Chuck E. Cheese-esque gimmick restaurant. The gag is that the place’s owner, a once-fearsome monster voiced by Octavia Spencer, is now a hard-pressed manager who’s lost her edge. But in showing us how every corner of this land has been stripped of its danger and wonder, the film ends up looking rather tamed itself; even the action set-pieces, like a speeding pursuit involving a gang of motorcycle-riding pixies, lack the whirling momentum of your average Pixar chase sequence. The point is that modern life dims the excitement of actually living. Is that excuse enough for introducing a fantasy world of limitless possibilities, then viewing it mostly through the windows of a sputtering van getting on and off the expressway?
Onward works best when it explores the dynamic between the brothers, as when Ian resists his brother’s pressure to use magic — until the newfound skill starts to come in handy over the course of their journey. And sometimes they go wrong with hilarious results, including a shrinking spell that nods to Toy Story because, well, why not. The weightiest themes come as the brothers feud over their dueling priorities and different means of wrestling with the emotional baggage of their dad’s death. Onward falls into that unfortunate subgenre that relies on supernatural devices to explore the grieving process, but makes the concept more bearable by building an entire world that bolsters the metaphor.
Yet, to say it once again, Onward isn’t Pixar’s finest. There’s something kind of schematic about the film’s arc of empowerment and sibling bonding: determined to carpe diem his button-up life, the plucky Ian has a habit of making checklists to motivate himself, and the screenwriters seem similarly beholden to self-imposed imperatives, crossing off lessons and achievements and setbacks and familiar plot beats on the way to a big-boom finale. And its part of that climax that feels woefully rushed and shoehorns developments while leaving several characters half-baked. But eventually, the mayhem settles into a meaningful payoff, with a finale that offers an unlikely unintuitive vantage on the cathartic moment of truth. It’s there where the films finds that old Pixar intersection of the magical and touching. While it falls a bit into Pixar’s too-neat formula, Onward, as it dives into the grieving process, ultimately conjures a spell of warm, heartfelt catharsis.