When in doubt, Pixar makes a buddy comedy. Woody and Buzz, Mike and Sully, Carl and Russell… the list goes on and on. Onward, the animation studio’s first offering of 2020 (Soul arrives in June) is no exception. Pixar’s first original feature since Coco in 2017, Onward takes place in a fantasy world filled with magic… at least, until the invention of electricity.
After a prologue that presents a world of wizards and magical beasts, we arrive in present day New Mushroomton, where magic is a thing of the past. Elf brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) lost their father when they were too young to know him, and they’ve always wanted that relationship. On Ian’s 16th birthday, his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in her second Pixar voice role after Princess Atta in A Bug’s Life) gives him a gift from his father: a magic staff and instructions for a spell that could bring him back to life for a single day. Barley, a fantasy geek (though in this world, he’s a history geek), freaks out. He is unable to cast the spell, but Ian can… sort of. After an explosive attempt, Ian finds that he has brought his father’s bottom half back from the dead, leading to all sorts of Weekend at Bernie’s-esque situations.
Barley fires up his van to help Ian find another phoenix gem so they can bring their father’s top half back for the remaining time they have. Ian is a typical reluctant teenage hero: awkward, sweaty, denying his magical gifts. Barley is far more enthusiastic, even if he’s more reckless and liable to get into trouble. He is obsessed with finding real magic in this mundane fantasy world (emphasis on mundane). Barley turns a visit to a Manticore’s lair (really a family restaurant run by a manticore voiced by Octavia Spencer) into a dangerous quest. At times, Onward seems afraid of more spectacular imagery, even the spells are simple fireworks, hardly capturing the grandiosity of a lost age. The film’s visuals are surprisingly sparse – most of the second act takes place in a nondescript field.
Of course, the film isn’t really about a world where magic has faded away due to lack of interest– it’s about brothers. In that regard, it’s fairly successful. Ian and Barley have an interesting dynamic, clearly influenced by director Dan Scanlon’s life, as his father too died when he was young. Ian’s traumas and desires feel too specific to come off as fabricated or manipulative, like some Pixar “cry” moments that shall go unnamed.
The film’s resolution goes a bit differently than I expected, in a way that feels earned. Though Onward is far from the best of Pixar’s efforts, it still has enough moments of surprise and humor to make it worthy of your time. Don’t expect too much Dungeons and Dragons-style lore outside of visual gags, however.
dir. Dan Scanlon
Opens everywhere Friday, 3/6