The two lead characters in the new Pixar movie “Onward” are Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt), a pair of elf brothers who lost their father so long ago that Ian has no memory of him. On Ian’s 16th birthday, he and Barley are given a gift by their mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), that hails from directly from their dad. That gift turns out to be a magic staff, one that’s powerful enough to perform a spell that could bring Ian and Barley’s deceased father back from the dead for a 24-hour period. Of course, the spell doesn’t go as planned, and eventually only the bottom half of Dad comes back to life, in addition to the gem needed to perform this spell being destroyed.
Now Ian, Barley and their dead dad’s legs are on a quest to retrieve a new gem that can help them pull off this spell before time runs out. “Onward” is another Pixar road-trip movie centered on a mismatched duo, and that’s one of a number of aspects of the production (which includes the derivative characters designs of the two leads) that heavily evokes earlier Pixar titles. It’d be a lot easier to exclusively complain about “Onward” returning to familiar elements of prior Pixar movies if it didn’t end up executing its central storyline in a predominately satisfying fashion. However, if there is a bone to pick with the screenplay (penned by Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley and Keith Brunin), it’s that gags or background details related to how a modern-day fantasy world would operate aren’t all that novel.
Granted, such an element doesn’t end up being as critical of a component of “Onward” as its teaser trailer would suggest, but background gags like a “Halt” sign instead of a “Stop” sign merely echo Far Far Away in the “Shrek” movies rather than establish the world of “Onward” as its own unique thing. While the gags related to modern fantasy could certainly stand some polishing, thankfully the majority of “Onward” thrives on a more intimate style of storytelling that doesn’t just rely on the sight of elves using cell phones. There’s a lot more substantive storytelling going on here, and the presence of such storytelling tends to sneak up on you. What seems like a routine adventure tale gradually shifts its perspective toward something more intimate.
“Onward” achieves this storytelling shift by showing admirable restraint when it comes to the fantastical set pieces. Such sequences tend to rely more on characterization than derivative spectacle. For instance, we get a mid-movie car chase scene that has all the intense editing of “Baby Driver,” but isn’t fixated on cars chasing each other across multiple blocks. Instead, it’s fixated on inexperienced driver Ian being forced to confront his fears related to driving while switching lanes on the freeway. That isn’t exactly the first thing one thinks of when you imagine a fantasy adventure movie, but that’s the novel part of “Onward.” It’s a story that presents itself as a grandiose quest, but then proceeds to fixate its most important narrative points on small-scale interactions between the two leads. The highest compliment I can pay here is that you could take the central drama between Ian and Barley related to their familial woes, have it be told by humans, and it would still be compelling.
There’s plenty of fun to be had with the fantasy aspects of “Onward’s” world, but it also realizes that you won’t care about that stuff unless you get these characters nailed down. Part of how it gets you so involved with those characters is through the voice work, which is a welcome surprise given how (on paper) its lead actors should be the definition of animated movie stunt casting. Thankfully, Holland and Pratt are able to surpass their celebrity personas and just become their characters. Holland, for his part, is able to make sure neurotic teen Ian is more than just a Peter Parker pastiche, while Pratt genuinely impressed me in how his voicework kept unearthing new layers to a seemingly surface-level tabletop game-obsessed college student. Pratt’s best live-action performances tend to come about when he’s playing people who think they’re perfect heroes but are actually emotionally troubled doofuses. Given that, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Barley, a role very much in Pratt’s wheelhouse, is a part Peter Quill manages to knock out of the park, especially in some of Barley’s most quiet poignant moments.
Also around in the voice-cast are Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer and Mel Rodriguez, who all end up supplying enjoyable supporting turns. Meanwhile, the score by Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna nicely dances back-and-forth between traditional fantasy adventure music and a more intimate musical approach - both modes that the duo end up delivering solid results in. This composing duo’s work in balancing opposing tonal elements nicely encompasses how well “Onward” as a whole feature is able to be both an entertaining fantasy adventure and a touching story about the family members that shape us. That means if you’re like me, you can expect to shed some tears during “Onward.” I know some stretches of the final half-hour certainly got me all teary-eyed. It’d be easier to gripe about the formulaic nature of this aspect of “Onward” if the movie didn’t manage to execute its poignant climax so well. Sometimes, the familiar can be just fine if you execute it with enough success and smarts as “Onward.”
Douglas Laman is a film critic, who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends … and watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website, landofthenerds.blogspot.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.