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 ebullient toys or snarky closet monsters — yields such satisfying results that even a lesser Pixar movie can radiate vision.
“Onward,” the witty and wistful tale of two brothers trying to finish the spell that will resurrect their dead dad, underscores this point: It’s not a star of the Pixar canon, but this big-hearted reworking of fantasy and emotional family bonds embodies the Pixar touch so well you can’t help but root for its success and enjoy the ride.
Context is key. The spectrum of quality for Pixar movies ranges from “decent but underwhelming” to “flat-out masterpiece,” and “Onward” falls somewhere in the middle. A solid new addition, it lacks the psychological sophistication of “Inside Out,” the wondrous slapstick of “WALL-E,” or the narrative foundation of the “Toy Story” franchise. Still, director Dan Scanlon (emerging from the shadow of “decent but underwhelming” Pixar entry “Monsters University”) has found his own intimate twist.
“Onward” recycles familiar tropes (teen rebellion in a single-parent household, coming-of-age adventuring) and transforms them into charming, visually inspired fantasy. We’ve all seen this suburban milieu, but not from the perspective of angst-riddled elves and wizardry. Scanlon’s savvy world building obscures the familiar turns, or gives them renewed juice. Save for a few by-the-book action sequences and corny gags, “Onward” maintains its clever balance of formula all the way through an emotional climax engineered to make you cry, and makes the journey worthwhile.
Its ingenuity starts in the opening minutes with a concise montage that establishes a remarkable backdrop pitched somewhere between “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 succinct as the pitch that probably sold this premise: Who needs a spell when you have lightbulbs and public transit?
Cut to the present day, where mystical creatures lead average lives, flying unicorns have become dumpster-diving pests, and dragons have devolved into domesticated pals. It’s here that scrawny 16-year-old Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland, America’s latest embodiment of awkward) endures the sort of teen struggles that movies about boyhood love to probe: A pointy-eared high school pariah whose father died in his infancy, Ian spends most of his days terrified of confrontation and contending with the large shadow cast by his rambunctious older brother Barley (a snarky Chris Pratt, channeling his inner Jack Black).
Barley’s obsession with the magic of the past makes for a unique combination of ubergeek and history buff, but he’s also a bit of a punk who wears a patchy black jean jacket and drives a ramshackle van he’s dubbed Guinevere. He’s nothing but trouble for the boys’ mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who’s dating macho police officer Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), who also happens to be a gryphon.
Officer Bronco attempts to act as a father figure, but Barley keeps attracting the law for other reasons as he battles construction workers to keep them from demolishing an ancient monument at the center of town. (“You need to think less about the past and more about the future,” his mother says.) Then, “Onward” careens into its biggest twist as Barley uncovers a spell from their long-deceased father that will allow him to come back to life for 24 hours.
However, only his younger brother has the magic to make that happen — and in the middle of the spell, the gemstone necessary to complete it falls apart. The astonished Lightfoot brothers now find themselves with their ghost dad’s severed torso, which runs around their room like a decapitated chicken. Barley knows the score, and the pair embark on a rapid-fire road trip to track down the other gemstone and restore the rest of their dad’s body before the spell wears off.
It’s a setup that nods to several reference points: To avoid detection, Ian takes a page from “Weekend at Bernie’s” and dresses their half-dad up with a puffy jacket and dark shades, while their ensuing quest suggests a self-aware “Escape to Witch Mountain.” The plot thickens with a chaotic visit to a pub called Manticore’s, now a glorified Chuck E. Cheese knock-off run by the retired Manticore herself, Corey (Octavia Spencer, having the time of her life). Wild hijinks ensue as place burns down and the boys evade the police as well as a mob of angry pixie bikers, speeding along the desert landscape toward an uncertain destination with their dedicated mom tailing them at every turn.
“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 an invisibility cloak that relies on its wearer to tell the truth, and 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 subgenere 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.
With Barley behind the wheel, Ian’s ongoing attempts to strike up a relationship with a pair of legs that can’t see or hear him epitomizes the younger Lightfoot’s struggle to relate to a man he never got to know in the first place; similarly, when the brothers engage in a touching dance scene with those same legs as they pick up on vibrations from the car stereo, “Onward” becomes as much about the bonds that develop in the wake of deep personal loss as it is about confronting that pain.
From a visual standpoint, the movie offers few surprises (especially when compared with Pixar’s other coming-of-age fantasy, the Miyazaki-inspired “Brave”). The various humanoid creatures populating the “Onward” universe are comprised of large cartoonish eyes and purplish flesh, but script and character generally overwhelm the need for technological innovation.
The more problematic aspects of the movie come with its rushed climax, a pileup of messy action sequences that shoehorn developments while leaving several characters half-baked. Eventually, the mayhem settles into a meaningful payoff that dodges an obvious outcome for a more subtle catharsis. That’s the real magic at work: “Onward” doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but spins it so well that it conjures a spell of its own as a new decade dawns with the Pixar touch intact.
“Onward” premiered at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival. Disney releases it nationwide on March 6.