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Review: Onward

March 5, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 22nd feature from Disney and Pixar, Onward is an entertaining and emotionally resonant animated adventure that imagines a “suburban fantasy world” that has lost its sense of wonder and magic.

You see, in days of yore real magic used to exist in this world, but it has long since been replaced by the conveniences of technology, from light bulbs to electric stoves and smartphones, removing the need for wizards and spells. The world is populated by blue, pointy-eared elves and other fantastical creatures who have become essentially human in their existence.

Minotaurs now drive instead of gallop, pixies have forgotten how to fly and have taken to the streets on motorcycles, dragons are house pets, and flying unicorns are now reduced to raccoon-like creatures who forage through trash cans for food. This high concept premise of how the industrial and technological revolutions would have impacted a magical world, which is not unlike The Good Dinosaur‘s “what if the meteor missed?” setup, provides the backdrop for Onward. But, in true Pixar fashion, it’s the heart of the story, as well as the touching, believable sibling relationship at its centre, that makes the film a winner.

The main characters are two teenaged elf brothers named Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt), whose father died when Barley was young and before Ian was born. While Barley has a few memories of their father, Ian never got to meet him and has grown up always wondering what his dad was like, only knowing him through photographs and an old cassette tape. The story begins on Ian’s 16th birthday, when their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gifts them with a wizard staff left behind by their late father for when his boys both came of age. Lo and behold, their dad was a wizard, and he has granted them a visitation spell that will bring him back for one day.

But when the Phoenix Gem needed for the spell malfunctions, and only dad’s legs are brought back, the brothers set out on a quest in Barley’s beloved purple van, Guinevere, to track down another stone and bring back the rest of dad before the 24 hours are up. The fact that the film is able to build an emotional bond with a pair of legs in khaki pants moving around without a torso is an example of that old Pixar magic. In need of a map, the boys’ journey first takes them to the film’s best supporting character, a once-powerful creature named The Manticore (Octavia Spencer), who describes herself as a “winged lion-scorpion lady.” The Manticore’s Tavern, which was once the place where all quests began, has now been turned into a family theme restaurant that she runs as a hurried manager.

The premise of two siblings trying to reunite with their deceased father, but only having limited time to do so, is itself enough to get you choked up, and Onward delivers on an emotional level. A big part of this is due to the fact that Dan Scanlon, the film’s director and co-writer, based elements of the story on his own life. Scanlon and his older brother also grew up without a father, who died when the filmmaker was a baby. Like Ian in the film, Scanlon only ever knew his dad’s voice through an old audio recording and has always wondered what it would be like if he could actually spend time with him.

Scanlon previously directed the Pixar prequel Monsters University, and there are some similarities between the fantastical worlds and diverse character designs of both films. The animation in Onward is expectedly eye-popping, and filled with wonderful visual vistas and little details. The film is built around the believable sibling dynamic between Ian and Barley, and the relationship between them is quite well developed. Holland and Pratt, both Avengers alums, do a good job of voicing them and have appealing chemistry together, bringing elements of their own distinct personalities to the characters.

Ian is shyer and more tentative, but viewed by others as a bright kid, where as Barley is rambunctious and outgoing, but is seen by the rest of society as a perpetual screw-up. This is aggravated by the fact that Barley keeps finding himself on the wrong side of the law due to his activist work of trying to save historic architectural sites by chaining himself to old ruins that the town is trying to tear down, drawing the ire of their mom’s new minotaur cop boyfriend, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez).

If Ian is the one preoccupied with finally meeting his father, Barley is also quite literally stuck in the past, obsessed with his world’s magical history and continuously living it out through the “historically accurate” role-playing game Quests of Yore. While it goes by another name in the film, Dungeons & Dragons is well represented here. Barley is an unemployed metalhead who still lives at home. He’s on the “longest gap year ever,” his mother moans at one point. Barley’s lack of direction and his interest in the past, like Ian’s lack of self-confidence, stems from the pain of losing his father.

If Onward as a whole isn’t quite as richly fleshed out as we have come to expect from Pixar, and the story itself ends up feeling a bit predictable at times, Scanlon makes up for it with his deeply personal connection to the material. The film has likeable leading characters and a lot of fun moments, as well as a beating heart that ultimately becomes its defining feature. The strength of the film lies in its powerful emotional core, building towards a moving ending that is almost guaranteed to get you misty eyed.

Onward opens tonight in theatres across Canada.

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