The story takes the mythical beasts of games like Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons and transplants them into their own cute little world. These elves, centaurs, and sprites used to practice magic to brighten their lives, but evolution and the advance of technology have pushed such fantastic practices into obsolescence. By the beginning of Onward, these creatures have settled into a vanilla existence akin to 21 century humans: They clunk along in cars and stay glued to their smartphones.
Despite all this dullness, magic could still be brewing within the elven Lightfoot family. Barley (voice of Chris Pratt), a teenage man-child and RPG fanatic, swears that magic still hides in plain sight, just waiting to be exposed. His little brother Ian (Tom Holland) struggles with extreme shyness and grows frustrated with Barley’s moon-eyed shenanigans. Their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) tries to raise both boys after the death of their father, whose big personality still looms large in all their lives.
Ian’s world gets upended when Laurel presents him with a birthday gift: A wizard’s staff, a glowing gem, and an accompanying letter from their father. In it, he dispatches the boys to learn an enchantment that will bring him back to life for 24 hours. Ian attempts to suss out his dormant sense of magic, but only manages to conjure the bottom half of his departed dad. Now, Ian and Barley must strike out with this reanimated pair of khakis to captured another gem and bring back the rest of their father time expires.
What follows is a Goonies-style adventure, fraught with danger and brimming with maps and secret clues. You also get the requisite adults who don’t understand and try to muck up all the fun. This takes the form of a meddling stepdad (Mel Rodriguez) and his fellow cops. Along the way, the boys meet an assortment of eccentric characters, designed to add a little sauce to the gumbo: Corey the Manticore (Octavia Spencer), who runs the fantasy-world equivalent of a Medieval Times and supresses the mythic powers within her. There’s also a surly biker gang of Pixies, led by a hard-edged badass named Dewdrop (Grey Griffin).
As with every Pixar release, Onward gets peppered with sly jokes pitched straight for grownups. Parents may find themselves chuckling at references to 70s music and decor, mainly in the form of Guinevere, Barley’s retro shaggin’ wagon. Put it another way, some kiddie movies might bore you to tears, but that’s not a worry with Onward.
Pop culture cleverness aside, it would be difficult to be bored with the incredible artistry on display throughout the film. Much like Toy Story 4, Onward stands as a testament to how far digital animation has come. I noticed–because I’m a giant nerd–incredible details in stuff like pavement and a flowing river. Hell, even a giant cheese puff looks amazing. You’ll want to catch Onward on the biggest and best screen you can find.
But what really drives this film is its unfailing grasp of humanity. The loss of a parent creates a scar that fades, but never goes away. At its core, Onward looks at two boys who’ve been living with regret and a lack of closure. Anybody who’s ever wanted one last chance to say anything to somebody they love will feel the plight of Ian and Barley. It never quite attains the emotional impact of Up, or the unhinged brilliance of the Toy Story films. Still, a Stradivarius instrument is a Stradivarius instrument. I’ll take good with just a hint of great any day.
102 min. PG.