Onward lacks the Pixar-worthy tech “Wow” and soul touching story of Up, WALL-E, or Inside Out. But, that said, this film is still better than most animated entertainment currently on the market. Eventually, it will touch your heart.
This is Writer/Director Dan Scanlon’s second Pixar feature. His first, Monsters University is also not counted among Pixar’s best. His characters in this one are somewhat cloying or annoying. This is a story, based on Scanlon’s own family history, It’s about teen-age brothers on a family quest that comes close, but misses the bulls-eye.
The two brothers in question are Ian, (voiced by Tom Holland) and the older brother Barley (Chris Pratt.) They live in an alternate world similar to ours, but inhabited by magical creatures. The brothers are teen-elves, but there are also Unicorns, Trolls, Centaurs, domesticated Dragons, Sprites, and more. They all live in harmony in New Mushroomton, a typical suburban town. In the distant past, there was real magic in their lives, but as scientific discoveries like electricity and newer tech devices took over, there was no need to cast a spell when you could just throw a switch. The magic was gone.
Ian and Barley have been raised by their single Mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). True to the Disney playbook, this is a story with a parent missing.
Their Dad, Wilden, (Kyle Bornheimer) died before Ian could meet him and Barley, who was just 3, has a few fuzzy memories. Wilden was a believer in the power of magic. On Ian’s 16th birthday he receives a letter from his father saved just for this day. There are instructions about a spell that could bring him back from the dead for 24 hours so he could see what became of his sons.
Scanlon’s story is heavy on the relationship between the brothers. Ian, cautious and somewhat fearful, is dragged into one misadventure after another by his loud, obnoxious, over confident, always up for a magical quest sibling. It’s the core of the story and sometimes feels belabored. Barley urges Ian to utter their father’s spell. He delivers it with half the energy needed and the result is that his father is restored only half way, from the waist down. The challenge for the animators was to give this headless, torso-less character some…character. And to their credit they do! It’s an unusual comedic device.
The brothers’ 24 hour quest puts them on the trail of the magic crystal that will bring the rest of Dad back. It leads them to a kids’ themed restaurant fronted by Corey the Manticore (Octavia Spencer), a part lion, part scorpion creature who has been reduced to running this Chuck E. Cheese-like eatery. She eventually joins in to help Laurel find her sons and save them from impending doom. Laurel’s boyfriend, Colt Bronco, a jovial centaur, who also happens to be a cop, gets in on the action. His recurring laugh line and chortle are pretty good.
The look of the animation is inconsistent. The characters have a plastic, almost pasty look that doesn’t fit well when layered over the background scenery and building which are richly detailed and almost photographic in quality. It looks as if the two teams of animators didn’t show each other their work as the film came together. The scene where Ian creates his own magical bridge to get what is needed is very imaginative.
The comedy employed in the creation of this world of magical creatures works on all ages. Look closely at the customers in Corey’s restaurant and out on the street for filthy unicorns rummaging through garbage like raccoons in a Geico commercial. And using cheetos as a boat is very camp, or is it just product placement?
The heart-tugs come late in this film, and it’s a bit contrived, but kids and grown-ups can’t help but be drawn into the pay-off moment. You may tear up. This story is actually drawn from Dan Scanlon’s own life. His own father died when he was just a year old. Scanlon and his older brother never got to know their Dad. That was the genesis of this bit of Pixar magic that could have used a little more.
Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios 114 Minutes PG
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