‘Onward’ isn’t one of Pixar’s best animated movies, but it might be its weirdest
The opening moments of “Onward” whisk us back to a world of wonder, populated by galloping centaurs, spell-casting wizards and fire-breathing dragons. Speaking of which, you’ll be forgiven for briefly wondering if you’ve stumbled into a “How to Train Your Dragon” sequel by mistake. The digital wizards at Pixar Animation Studios pride themselves, with good reason, on their originality and ingenuity, but this particular once-upon-a-time scene setter feels curiously, even knowingly derivative. It means to remind us of an era when magic ruled the earth, and to assure us that it will rule again.
Real magic, by which I mean genuinely transporting fantasy, isn’t an easy thing for a movie to promise in this day and age. The major studios — including the ravenous hydra-headed content factory that is Disney — are often content to deliver spectacle without wonder, churning out familiar stories and prepackaged life lessons to be wearily received by a seen-it-all audience. And so it’s understandable that “Onward,” Pixar’s 22nd animated feature, would express some nostalgia for a purer, grander storytelling past, even as its title points with insistent optimism toward the future.
And I’m pleased to report that said optimism is not entirely unfounded. Although it does not join the likes of “The Incredibles” and “WALL-E” in the pantheon of company masterworks, “Onward” is a touching, lovingly crafted oddity — a movie that acknowledges its borrowed elements at the outset and then proceeds to reinvigorate them with tried-and-true Pixar virtues: sly wit, dazzling invention and a delicacy of feeling that approaches the sublime. The result may sound like an incongruous pileup of genres on paper — picture an ancient storybook quest, a rowdy ’80s-flavored buddy comedy and an out-and-out male weepie in a noisy three-way collision — but there are glimmers of real enchantment and honest feeling amid the rubble.
You’ll forgive the car-crash metaphor, but it seems appropriate, since “Onward,” most of which unfolds in the present day, boasts more vehicular recklessness than any Pixar movie outside the “Cars” franchise. The protagonist is a blue-skinned, pointy-eared elf named Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland), who has just turned 16 and is thus old enough to learn how to drive — a prospect that, like nearly everything else in life, fills him with dread and anxiety. He couldn’t be more different from his older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), a goofy, boisterous slacker who tears up the streets of their suburban hamlet in a rattletrap van named Gwinny (short for Guinevere).
The conceit of the movie — written by Dan Scanlon (who also directed), Jason Headley and Keith Bunin — is that although we are in a land populated entirely by trolls, centaurs, mermaids and other mythic creatures, magic itself is a thing of the past, having long been eclipsed by science and modern technology. Ian and Barley have a pet dragon, but they also have smartphones, boomboxes and kitchen appliances. Their loving mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is introduced watching a workout video. Later on, a key supporting character — the lion-bodied, bat-winged, scorpion-tailed Manticore (Octavia Spencer) — will agonize over having traded in her life as a fearsome beast of legend for a job in medieval-themed restaurant management.
The crass commercialization and relentless standardization of modern life has been a choice satirical target for Pixar movies as different as “Ratatouille” and “Toy Story.” “Onward,” grounding its fantasy in a dull-hued world of suburbs, freeways, fast-food joints and liquor stores — the Midwest by way of Middle-earth — is no exception. Still, those ancient magical traditions have not been entirely forgotten. They have a staunch defender in Barley, a scholar, geek and born adventurer with a deep knowledge of fantasy lore. And naturally, in one of those ironic twists that will force two very different personalities to embark on a long, strange trip, it’s not Barley but the shy, magic-averse Ian who turns out to have a natural gift for sorcery when an enchanter’s staff falls into their possession — a gift from their beloved father, who died years ago.
Scanlon, who made his Pixar feature-directing debut with “Monsters University,” has noted that this movie grew out of his own experience as the younger of two brothers who lost their father at an early age. The untimely death of a parent is, of course, a timeless fairy-tale trope and something of a Disney narrative specialty, but “Onward” employs the cliché in ways that feel both more personal and more daring. Through a series of enjoyably odd contrivances, Ian and Barley’s father is magically brought back to life for a day — or rather, the lower half of his body is, thanks to a spell that goes awry in Ian’s unskilled hands.
Perhaps only a company with Pixar’s proven track record with unpromising high concepts could see the logic of turning a pair of disembodied, khaki-trousered legs into a major character, even at the risk of inviting a few below-the-belt jokes. It’s an initially amusing, sometimes disquieting story choice (shades of the Oscar-nominated “I Lost My Body”) that eventually wears out its welcome as a sight gag. But as a striking image of a father’s lingering presence beyond the grave — always there beside you, yet never able to speak — it’s not without a certain ghostly resonance. If Scanlon was thinking of his own late father while making this movie, it’s only fair for me to admit that I thought of mine while watching it.
I don’t offer this up as unqualified praise, since this is merely the latest (and far from the most seamless) Pixar adventure to double as a poignant meditation on love and loss. Nor would I suggest that the emotional relatability of “Onward” is its most admirable or remarkable quality. There are mediocre movies that can drain our tear ducts, and great movies that bypass them completely.
What makes this one pretty good, and sometimes inspired, is that despite the occasional canned sentiment or overly familiar conflict, all those emotions seem to spring naturally from the story’s intricate roots. And even at its most unabashedly wacky, that story — stuffed with goofy in-jokes, pulse-quickening action scenes and a supporting cast of leather-clad sprites on mini-motorcycles (what else?) — has been imagined and conceptualized with a recognizably Pixarian rigor.
And also, it should be noted, with an up-to-the-minute understanding of popular culture, particularly the tastes of the young men who will make up this unapologetically brotastic movie’s key demographic. Holland and Pratt have a winning rapport, in part because they could be starring in a parallel-universe “Avengers” spinoff with Spider-Man and Star-Lord. The wild adventure they find themselves on has unmistakably Spielbergian undertones, from a climactic set-piece that evokes Indiana Jones to the laughs extracted at the expense of their mom’s annoying centaur boyfriend (Mel Rodriguez).
The puzzles they must solve, the incantations they must utter and the bolts of lightning that erupt from Ian’s staff will return more than a few members of the audience to the days they spent happily reading Harry Potter or playing Dungeons & Dragons, even if those days were just last week. Sound like something you’ve seen before? It is — and somehow, it isn’t. Maybe real magic isn’t dead after all.
Rating: PG, for action/peril and some mild thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: Opens March 6 in general release