From its first feature film onward, Pixar has made its name by couching heartfelt stories inside fantastical settings. Toys, bugs, monsters, cars, fish, superheroes, robots, and feelings have all been the subject of various movies, with Pixar earning big emotions with every story. They’re now continuing that grand tradition with mythological creatures in Onward.
Ian (Tom Holland), who’s the nervous and shy type, and Barley (Chris Pratt), who’s boisterous and outgoing, are elves who have grown up most of their lives without a father, who died when both were young. As in many other Pixar movies, they inhabit a world that would be recognizably human were it not populated by trolls, centaurs, unicorns, and more creatures usually featured in myths.
Ian has just turned 16, and his mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), presents him and Barley with a gift their father was saving for the occasion: A wizard’s staff that supposedly allows them to bring him back for one day. Using magic previously unbeknownst to him, Ian accomplishes the goal … halfway, literally, as only the bottom half of his dad’s body appears. Ian and Barley decide to go on a quest to finish the task, one which will take them far from home.
Written and directed by Dan Scanlon, with an assist from co-writers Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, the film keeps its father issues at the forefront while indulging in all manner of hijinks involving the various creatures with whom the brothers cross paths. They include Officer Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), a centaur who is now their step-father; Corey (Octavia Spencer), a manticore — head of a human, body of a lion, tail of a scorpion — who now manages a restaurant; motorcycle-riding pixies; and more.
Scanlon and his team buoy the somewhat morbid nature of the plot with plenty of levity. The dad’s half body is temporarily completed with sunglasses and a stuffed sweatshirt, resulting in physical jokes that are Weekend at Bernie’s-esque. Ian’s timidness and Barley’s brashness cause friction throughout the film, which is alternately funny, dramatic, and sad.
The adventure part of the plot is fun, with multiple different tasks that the brothers need to finish. But whether it’s the knowledge that the mission is all in service of what we know will be an emotional ending or a somewhat odd sideplot involving Laurel and Corey, the film has trouble connecting its disparate pieces. All of it is enjoyable, but it never transports like some other Pixar films.
As they’ve shown in various Marvel movies, both Holland and Pratt are eminently likable actors, and their charms come across here despite never seeing their faces. The same can be said for Louis-Dreyfus, Spencer, and Rodriguez, although the animation is doing much of the work for each character.
While perhaps not a top-tier Pixar release, Onward is still head and shoulders above most other animated fare. It delivers the emotional release it promises in its premise in a slightly unexpected way, something that makes up for whatever it lacks.