*** out of ****
(for action/peril and some mild thematic elements)
Released: March 6, 2020
Runtime: 102 minutes
Directed by: Dan Scanlon
Starring: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Lena Waithe, Ali Wong
Suburbia set in a fantasy world. Genre archetypes playfully deconstructed. Well-worn themes about identity, taking risks, and the bonds between fathers & sons. Pixar appropriates a lot of familiar jokes and tropes in Onward, a high-concept sentimental mashup of pop culture go-to’s.
Yet for a movie that comes off as market-tested in every detail, with each piece of merchandising carefully considered, Onward feels just as personal as so many of the studio’s beloved (if also better) classics. Much of this may be contrived, but darned if its heart isn’t completely sincere.
That’s because the story – about two teenage brothers who lost their father when they were very young – is writer/director Dan Scanlon’s story; his dad died when he was still a baby.
Scanlon imbues his own unhealed melancholy into the fabric of this comic adventure, one where the teenage boys aren’t humans but elves. They live in a Middle-type Earth that’s lost its wonder to become recognizably routine, filled with domesticated ogres, centaurs, and various and sundry anthropomorphized creatures. The setting itself is a resonant metaphor, a place where technology and convenience has caused everyone to lose their sense of magic.
The elvish brothers are Ian and Barley Lightfoot (voiced by MCU vets Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, respectively). On Ian’s 16th birthday, his mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) hands him a wizard’s staff. It is from his late father, and with it is a a sealed note that contains an ancient spell, one that can bring his dad back to life for 24 hours.
After a few failed attempts by Barley to conjure it, Ian successfully triggers it. Apparently, he alone possesses the necessary magical gifts. But the spell is short-circuited halfway through, leaving only the bottom-half of their dad’s body materialized. This sets the brothers on a quest for a jewel that can help them complete the spell, but they must do so by sunset the following day before their dad disappears forever.
The quest is beset with a series of challenges (natch), ones that Barley can navigate with his encyclopedic knowledge of a D&D-type role playing game. Rooted in the history and lore that their world has since lost, the game’s rules and levels are the reference tool they need to survive.
With Barley’s geeky know-how and Ian’s newfound powers, they work together to make their father-son reunion a reality. Holland and Pratt pair well as opposites, with Ian’s tentative shyness and Barley’s lovable devil-may-care goofiness (a kindred spirit to Pratt’s Andy Dwyer from Parks & Rec, but enhanced with ideals of gallantry and valor).
Emotional chords are struck early and often, never overwhelmed by the strategically structured plot, and crescendoing in the final act. For as much as this story is about father and sons, Onward deftly expands to be about brothers as well, from their connections to their tensions, and especially in how that relationship is defined when the father has been absent; it’s a bond that can’t be replaced by his presence.
In true Pixar fashion, Onward gives us a more complicated closure than what we usually get from safe, predictable family fare. At its core is a bittersweet truth, one that understands how our scars may be healed – and our longings satisfied – by ways that don’t fulfill the desires of our heart (even the good ones), and that love is ultimately expressed and found by being willing to sacrifice what we want for the sake of others.
This Thanksgiving will mark the 25th anniversary of Pixar feature films, dating back to 1995 when Toy Story first premiered. It’s no small miracle that, a full quarter-century later, even minor-Pixar entries like Onward can still leave a major impact.