Onward (2020)

“We’re going on a quest.”

It makes sense that Pixar, a powerhouse arm of the behemoth Disney monopoly, has chosen to stick so closely to the formula found in the Mouse House’s animated classics of yesteryear. More often than not they’re tales of growing up, full of love and loss and laughs, with a life lesson taught on the way from here to there and back again. Such is the case in the reliable yet rather predictable Onward, whose staple teaching point is one of sacrifice through newfound self-confidence. It may not rank among Pixar’s best efforts to date, but it’s right up there with Coco as the studio’s best feature since Inside Out.

Everyday suburbia gets a mythical makeover in Onward, taking a page from 2016’s Zooptopia notebook and painting our reality as we know it in a different light. All of the characters work, cook, go to school (it’s hinted that industrialization is to blame for the loss of magic). They look different but they’re every bit as human as we are. That especially goes for the elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), an outsider and a nervous nellie who dreads his imminent driver’s test, and a teen who often dreams of the father he never met. His single mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) does the best she can. She dates the centaur officer Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), a lethargic cop often called to collect Laurel’s older son Barley (Chris Pratt), a role-playing obsessive who spends most of his free time during a “gap year” fawning over the game “Quests of Yore.” Barley wants the adventure. Ian needs it. They should go together. After all, they’re brothers.

What separates Onward from so many other fantasy laden family features is the great originality of its concept. Two completely different brothers use a gift from their late dad to cast a spell: he’ll come to life for one final full day. But the magic doesn’t take, leaving the siblings with their father from the belt buckle down. As expected, the 2.5 of them embark on a treacherous journey to retrieve another stone and try once more. Onward suffers a bit from this point forward, cooking up its story with everything from the kitchen sink, and yet the film doesn’t lose the emotional resonance at its core. All the pixie fights, cop car chases, and the careless destruction during the finale aren’t enough to mask the top priority of Pixar’s latest. Onward isn’t about the final destination; it’s about the company we keep along the way.

A night out at the movies costs a family an arm and a leg. So it only makes sense that writer/director Dan Scanlon’s enchanting film gives the audience plenty of laughs and a dancing torso in return. He doesn’t skimp on the tears either, a now expected end result in Pixar’s oeuvre that is nonetheless earned in Onward through carefully executed setups and payoffs. An homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark proves to be exciting (as is the inspired Weekend at Bernie’s physical humor), but the real heart of the movie, and so much of its personality, is found in the more grounded scenes. A remembered tap on the foot. An impromptu dance party. A longing look filling in the space where a dad should be. In the end though, Onward finds its footing through leaps of faith and by believing in the strong ties of brotherhood, making this one road trip that’s worth the rocky ride.

“There was magic.”

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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