In its first non-sequel since 2017’s “Coco” Pixar takes us to a whimsical world where strange winged creatures like The Manticore (voice of Octavia Spencer) run theme restaurants to tell a story with a human heart.
“Spider-Man’s” Tom Holland provides the voice of Ian Lightfoot, a flannel-shirt-wearing elf who, with his blue skin, bushy hair and Converse High Tops, looks like a cross between Krist Novoselic and a Troll. His boisterous older brother Barley (Chris Pratt in a role that once would have been played by Jack Black) is more Judas Priest than Nirvana, and spends his days absorbed in a fantasy role-playing game.
They lost their father to illness years ago when the boys were young. Barley has vague memories of him but Ian doesn’t remember him at all. Dear old dad left behind a present for the guys to be opened when they were both over sixteen. “No way!” says Barley. “It’s a wizard staff. Dad was a wizard!” “No,” corrects mom (voice of Julia Louis-Dreyfus), “Your dad was an accountant!”
Whether Dad was an accountant or wizard doesn’t matter, the staff does have magic powers. When mixed and matched with a Visitation Spell, the right Phoenix gem and a hint of mojo, Dad will appear for one whole day. Eager to meet the man they never knew Ian and Barley start the spell, but, as Dad starts to materialize, something goes wrong and the magic gem dissolves. “Aah!” Barley says. “He’s just legs! There’s no top part. I definitely remember having a top part!”
Hoping for a do-over they set off to find another Phoenix gem. “We’ve only got twenty-four hours to bring back the rest of dad,” says Barley.
A mix of the role-playing game “Dungeons & Dragons” and Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” “Onward” mixes the journey genre with an absent-father story. The search for the gem is the McGuffin that keeps the action moving forward but ultimately, it’s not that important. It provides an excuse for director Dan Scanlon to stage large scale scenes involving winged fairies, giant gelatinous cubes and dragons but thematically this is more about a journey of self-discovery than search for a magic stone.
As such, “Onward” is at its best when it focusses on the relationships. Ian and Barley’s occasionally rocky but always loving bond lies at the heart of the film, but Pixar also remembers how to ratchet up the emotional content in other ways. The film’s most effective scenes are its simplest. Ian, listening to an audio tape of his late father and improvising a conversation he never got to have with the old man has the sprinkling of Pixar magic we expect from the folks that brought us stone cold classics like “Up” and “WALL-E.”
“Onward” doesn’t rank up with the very best of Pixar but few films, animated or otherwise, do. But what it lacks in storytelling innovation it makes up for in heart. The movie’s strength is in the way it handles the somber subject matter—the loss of Ian and Barley’s father—in the context of an exciting adventure filled with optimism.