In Onward Pixar imagines a world where magic and fantasy have been supplanted by the mundane and suburban. But if you squint, there is still some of that old sorcery hidden between the cracks. It’s almost ironic then that the movie’s setup is also a perfect metaphor for its faults and virtues. For there is little of that precious Pixar magic here, but Onward can still summon the stuff where it counts—and when it does it turns an otherwise ho-hum animated family movie into something irresistible. Even better during its third act pyrotechnics, it just might feel human.
The movie centers on two elfin brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt). Ian is the painfully shy awkward type who cannot gather the courage to invite classmates to his 16th birthday party while Barley is the aimless slacker who takes multiple gap years after high school to listen to Rush in a beat up van adorned in Magic the Gathering iconography. The two seem unremarkable, even as they are creatures descended from an ancient world of magic. More directly still in their lineage is a father who died when Barley was very young and Ian wasn’t even born… but he left them a gift.
Despite his meek accountant demeanor, it turns out their father was a wizard, who bequeathed his magical staff to the younger Ian on his 16th birthday. Along with a precious stone, Ian is able to use the magic within the wand to bring dad back for 24 hours… or at least half of him. Just his legs, actually. In a cruel twist of fate, the stone they have only brings him partially back, like some kind of below the waist Weekend at Bernie’s. And if his sons want to see him face-to-face, they’re going to need to go on a quest and find another magical gem before tomorrow’s sunset.
By setting this in a world of high fantasy and deceptively low stakes, director and co-writer Dan Scanlon finds a way to craft a solid father-and-son bonding movie, even though the father is almost a nonentity in the actual film. With its emphasis on old school magic “rules” that Barley rants about throughout the movie while his face is nose deep in what appears to be a strategy guide, Onward announces its Dungeons & Dragons and Magic the Gathering nostalgia to the world.
Yet these characters live in a landscape that looks suspiciously like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and countless other fantasy video games that the children of D&D dads now play. It thus becomes something of a “Cat’s in the Cradle” narrative, even though the father didn’t choose to be absent from his sons’ lives. Scanlon has told the press the movie is somewhat based on his own complex feelings after his father passed away when he was still a baby, and that through-line has profound ramifications by the finale. However, it’s also vital since much of the rest of the plot feels limited in scope for a Pixar movie.
This is not to say that Onward isn’t visually breathtaking. It is, after all, another jewel crafted by Pixar’s legion of talent. In fact, it’s dazzling in that way only Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios movies can be. But even that can be a double-edged sword of truth, as the backgrounds around Barley and Ian are so meticulously designed, with even photorealistic dust particles floating around the house, that it jars with the more traditionally cartoonish design of its fanciful characters.
This whiplash can also carry over to a narrative that frequently relies on the gags of everyday life in Middle America getting made over with a high fantasy twist. Sometimes the results can be tremendously funny, such as a biker gang of pixies who for generations have forgotten how to use their wings, or the unicorns who have become this world’s version of raccoons rummaging through garbage bins. But it can likewise feel a bit twee.
Even so, focusing too much on why this is one of Pixar’s lesser movies would be to nitpick the forest for the trees.. Whatever its shortcomings, Onward is still an amusingly clever piece of family entertainment with a tangible heart at the center of its book of spells. Holland and Pratt do fair work as Ian and Barley, and both characters’ anxieties and oft unspoken disappointments are presented with sensitivity and grace by the filmmakers. Any child will understand why the kids want to truly know their father, but parents will also be able to discuss afterward why Barley dreads dad seeing the man he’s become.
At the end of the day, all parties can enjoy seeing stereotypical high schools trashed by mythological creatures, the irony of a pawn store clerk who’s literally fork-tongued, or that Dad Dance Moves are the best dance moves, especially sans torsos. This might be Pixar on an off-day, but even then it feels like spending quality time with a dear loved one.
David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of both the Critics Choice Association and the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.