Courtesy of PIXAR
For years, Pixar has been the gold standard when it comes to inventive and original storytelling, but as of late have delivered a slew of sequels - “Toy Story 4,” “The Incredibles 2,” “Cars 3,” and “Finding Dory”- in favor of new ideas. With the exception of “Coco” in 2017, their new family-friendly bromance flick “Onward” represents a magical return to the creative roots we have been craving from the studio.
“Onward” - per the usual Pixar standard - provides breathtaking animation and an engaging premise that sees a realm of mythical creatures (not too far removed from Middle Earth) living their daily lives like humans do. Except the magic of these folks ancestors are gone. There are no more wizards casting spells or hexes, unicorns rummage through trash, and fairies are part of biker gangs (“The Dixies”). Ironically, most fairytale winged creatures in this universe travel by plane. Police officer Bronco - who is a centaur - drives the squad car even though he was made to run. You get the picture.
Featuring several Dungeons and Dragons easter eggs, “Onward” makes it clear early this is a film about a quest. Our heroes are two blue-skinned elves; there’s the scrawny and insecure Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) and his slower, larger than life brother Barley (Chris Pratt) whose knowledge on mythic folklore would astonish every geek in the room (It also might come in handy on their journey). Sadly, Ian’s dad passed away before he was born - his mom is dating Bronco - but he left the bros an odd gift for his 16th birthday: a spell that can bring dad back to life for 24 hours. And for anyone that's read up on the plot will know there’s a hiccup in the procedure and the spell only half works: specifically the bottom half. Barley and Ian only end up with their pops’ feet and legs.
In order to bring the other half back, the duo must embark on a quest to find a rare Phoenix Gem. Thus, they hit the road in Barley’s iconic Mystery Machine like van he calls Guinevere to get the gem before sunset, dragging dad’s weird legs and feet along with them which, at first, feels a bit odd and clumsy, though some perfectly timed Pixar comic relief comes in handy later on they start to grow on you. There are other surprises and trinkets along the way, and as the paths start to forge and the brother detour down the “path of peril” (which is basically taking the backroads instead of the expressway) - “Onward” becomes more than just a story about boys trying to help their dad, but about discovering their connection to each other.
The narrative strategically delves into the pathos of masculinity, and the brothers’ characters deepen as they feel out their vulnerabilities, Ian - in particular - is afraid of talking to kids at school, while Barley is fearless in anything he does. It’s a terrific lesson for kiddos who might still be figuring out who they want to be and also gives Dungeons and Dragons enough of a boost to perhaps inspire more games across the country. In short, it’s perfectly understandable to be different and passionate about something at the same time.
Now “Onward” doesn’t represent the gold standard in Pixar's iconic catalog of popular characters, but features a solid hero’s journey and one heck of a finale. There’s plenty of visual splendor to entertain the youngsters when the narrative seems to be lagging and still manages to pack enough of an emotional punch to capture some of that old Pixar dazzle.
ONWARD opens in theaters everywhere on Friday March 6th 2020