“Onward,” the latest film from Pixar, is a funny, high-spirited fantasy adventure with several big emotional moments that will have kids asking their parents, “Why are you crying?” We wouldn’t expect anything less from the animation studio behind such films as “Toy Story” series, “WALL-E,” “Up,” “Finding Nemo,” “Coco” and “Inside Out.”
One of Pixar’s staples is the “what-if” movie. What if toys come to life when we aren’t around? What if there really are monsters in our closets? What if our feelings had feelings? “Onward” asks what if the modern world was populated with fantasy creatures like elves, pixies and centaurs instead of humans?
In a prologue, we are shown a world full of magic and wonderment, but over time, magic has been forgotten. This means that the world of “Onward” isn’t really that different than ours. The various fantasy creatures have mundane jobs and drive cars.
It is the details that have changed. Raccoons have been replaced by garbage-eating feral unicorns; pet miniature dragons fill in for dogs. These details are cute and good for a quick laugh, but those sort of jokes can only go so far. Thankfully, the setting is just the backdrop for a rich character-driven adventure.
Shy, socially awkward elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) never met his father because he died when he was just a baby. On his 16th birthday, his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) has a gift for him and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt): a wizard’s staff and a spell to bring their father back for a day. Naturally, the spell goes awry and only their father’s legs are conjured. Now, the brothers have 24-hours to find the magic stone that can complete the spell.
The magic only works for Ian, but lucky for him, Barley is an obsessive fan of a Dungeons-and-Dragons-style game that turns out to have real-world applications. Barley also has Guinevere, a van painted with a pegasus on its doors, to aid them in their grand quest. Guinevere becomes a character in its own right, complete with a heroic demise worthy of Valhalla.
There’s also a side quest for Laurel and The Manticore (Octavia Spencer), a winged lion-scorpion creature who gives the boys a map, but forgets to give them some key information. Also in the mix is Laurel’s boyfriend, the centaur cop Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez).
Manticore, a formerly great adventurer who could no longer deal with the liabilities, transformed her castle into a Chuck E. Cheese-style restaurant. It is through helping Laurel that she finds her joie de vivre again. Similarly, Laurel finds her inner warrior, too.
This subplot runs parallel with Ian discovering his inner strength as a wizard. With the help of his brother, he slowly gains confidence in not just his magic but himself. What was set up as a father-son story becomes a touching story of brotherly love.
Holland and Pratt (who previously worked together in “Avengers: Infinity War”) have tremendous chemistry and a believable sibling dynamic. Pratt is full of the false bravado associated with someone creating a character in a role-playing game, and is overjoyed that his brother is essentially a game character come to life. Holland does subtle work voicing Ian’s growing confidence. This builds to an action-filled conclusion that is genuinely fun and imaginative.
With the mainstreaming of D&D and other role-playing and table-top games, this is the perfect time for “Onward.” The screenplay by director Dan Scanlon and Jason Headley and Keith Bunin has fun playing around with the fantasy creatures and elements, including transforming pixies into unruly bikers with an inferiority complex.
What ultimately makes the film special is that, in addition to being colorful, funny and thrilling, it is quite affecting, with the characters making unexpected revelations and choices. “Onward” was going a certain direction, but the turn it makes in its final third is truly wonderful and emotionally resonate. It makes everything that precedes it better.