August 15, 2020  (Web Review)

Onward

Disney/Pixar, 102 m., PG, DVD: $29.99, Blu-ray: $39.99, May 19

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

People are so accustomed to home runs from Disney/Pixar that when the studio produces at best a double or triple, they simply dismiss it.  This fable, about estranged brothers who reconnect with one another—and the spirit of their dead father—through the use of magic against an ancient power, is not bad, but it feels like something that might have come out of any animation factory.  While Onward fails to match Pixar’s highest standards, however, it is nonetheless quite enjoyable. The story is set in a world inhabited by elves and other unusual-looking critters, but the society is pretty earthlike, apart from peculiar place names like the boys’ hometown of New Mushroomton.  Though magic once dominated, it has been replaced by technology and is now relegated to the realm of fantasy. Within this context Dan Scanlon’s screenplay focuses on the elfish Lightfoot brothers. Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) is runty, awkward, shy and embarrassed by his elder sibling Barley (Chris Pratt), a loud, brash slacker devoted to role-playing games like “Quests of Yore,” which he believes captures the reality of the magical past; he also drives around in a dilapidated van he calls Guinevere.  On Ian’s sixteenth birthday their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives him a gift from his late father Wilden—a wizard’s staff with a magic gem that can, accompanied by the proper spell, conjure up the boys’ dad for a day. Naturally, the attempt to use the staff goes awry⁠—the gem is shattered, and Wilden materializes only from the waist down. The boys compensate by shaping a sort of top half of stuffing, turning him into a bumbling slapstick figure, and then go off in Guinevere to secure a new gem so they can restore their father to wholeness before the day runs out; Ian insists they follow a “rational” route, while Barley finds inspiration in the games he plays. They encounter a succession of obstacles and dangers, even as they are pursued by Laurel, her centaur cop and boyfriend Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), and Corey (Octavia Spencer), a domesticated manticore.  They are also badgered  by a bunch of pixies, led by the bellicose Dewdrop (Grey Griffin), who have turned to riding motorcycles after losing the ability to fly, and a grumpy pawn shop owner (Tracey Ullman).  Naturally things turn sentimental at the close, with the brothers dealing with their feelings not only for their dead father but also toward one another even as they vanquish a powerful foe.  Onward is predictably first-rate from a technical perspective, but the storytelling feels somewhat formulaic and derivative, insufficiently imaginative and enchanting to rise above middling status among Pixar’s output.  Still, it can be recommended for family viewing. (F. Swietek)