FILM REVIEW – ONWARD. With the voices of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez. Written by Dan Scanlon & Jason Headley & Keith Bunin. Directed by Dan Scanlon. Rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements. 102 minutes.
Brothers in charms
When Pixar is at its best (“Up,” “Inside Out”), its animated movies can make us laugh one moment and tug at the heartstrings the next. ONWARD is similarly pedigreed and lives up to that high standard. It should appeal to viewers of all ages.
The story is set in a magical suburbia. The inhabitants are all fantasy figures like elves, unicorns, and centaurs, but we’re told that many have forsaken magic for the conveniences of the modern world. Ian Lightfoot (voice of Tom Holland) is turning 16 but is shy with few friends, and often overwhelmed by his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt). Their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents Ian with a wizard’s staff and a message from his late father, whom Ian never knew. The message contains a spell that will allow their father to return for a single day.
So where are the laughs? Something goes wrong with the spell and one half of Dad comes back… the bottom half. Now Ian and Barley are off on a mission to get a replacement gem for the staff so they can complete the spell before it’s too late. This adventure will have many twists and turns, bringing the brothers closer together in the process.
The level of invention is impressive, including biker gang fairies and the Manticore (Octavia Spencer), who steals the film. In mythology, a manticore had a human head, a lion’s body, and a scorpion’s tail, and was a fearsome beast. Here her once-dreaded lair has been turned into a themed family restaurant. Barley, somewhat of a slacker, is obsessed with a role-playing game called “Days of Yore,” insisting he and his brother are off to prove themselves on a quest. The filmmakers even borrow (with permission) the “gelatinous cube” from the real-life RPG, “Dungeons & Dragons.”
It’s the filmmakers striking that balance between pathos and goofiness that makes the movie work. When Pixar goes too far in one direction (as in the sappy “The Good Dinosaur”) or the other (as in the frantic “Monsters University”) they lose their way. Here, while there are plenty of laughs, we care what happens as the brothers deal with their family issues in the course of their quest. The movie reaches a satisfying if somewhat unexpected conclusion as the story comes full circle.
As a result, while it may not break new ground in animation or storytelling, Pixar continues to move ever “Onward.”•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.