September 28, 2020

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A voyage of elf discovery

Pixar fantasy adventure brings lots of heart to tale of brothers' quest

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/3/2020 (205 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A good-natured and enjoyable charmer, Onward reminds us that while Pixar got our attention back in 1995 with its pioneering work in 3D computer animation, the studio has kept our attention with its three-dimensional characters.

Warm, funny and exciting, this animated adventure follows two brothers on a quest for an enchanted crystal — and also for emotional treasures like confidence, connection and closure. While director Dan Scanlon’s second project (after Monsters University) is not as ambitious as many Pixar classics, it’s still a solid story with a big heart.

Our brothers, Ian (Tom Holland of the Spiderman franchise) and Barley (Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World’s Chris Pratt), who happen to be elves, live in a world that was once magical, populated by wizards and fantastical beasts. It’s now packed with six-lane freeways and bland suburban sprawl and corporate franchises.

Mismatched brothers Ian (Tom Holland), and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) embark on a magical quest. (Disney/Pixar)

Mismatched brothers Ian (Tom Holland), and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) embark on a magical quest. (Disney/Pixar)

The inhabitants may be cyclops, centaurs, manticores, pixies and unicorns — and for some unknown comic reason, unicorns are just the worst in Onward — but they’re restaurant managers and accountants and appliance salespeople, worried about taxes and work-life balance. The vestiges of a legendary fantasy realm pop up mostly in background details — word-playing medieval puns in the city’s signage and lots of neo-gothic design.

Ian is smart but kind of timid, and older brother Barley is a big, sweet lug. On Ian’s 16th birthday, their mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), gives them a gift from their dad, who died just before Ian was born. It’s a wizard staff, along with a magical spell crafted to bring their father back to life for one day.

The spell goes wrong, and the boys are left with only the bottom half of their paternal figure, wearing dad slacks and stumbling around. Initially, this is very unsettling — on both the metaphorical and literal levels — but after a bit, and once the boys supply Dad with a stuffed top half, it settles into a Weekend at Bernie’s comic vibe.

Relying on Barley’s knowledge of a Dungeons & Dragons-type game called Quests of Yore, which he claims is totally "historically accurate," the boys head out in a broken-down minivan to find the crystal needed to complete the spell and bring back the seeing, hearing, talking half of their father before the sun sets.

Trials along the way, from stone dragons to traffic cops, test their brotherly bond and underscore how much they miss their father as they lurch toward manhood themselves. While Hollywood often uses daddy issues to drive plots in the most perfunctory way, in Onward, the early death of the boys’ father is part of a gentle, sincere exploration of loss and grief.

In Onward, the early death of the boys’ father is part of a gentle, sincere exploration of loss and grief. (Disney/Pixar)

In Onward, the early death of the boys’ father is part of a gentle, sincere exploration of loss and grief. (Disney/Pixar)

Lead vocal performances are strong, and there are some good supporting turns, including Octavia Spencer as The Manticore ("Last name: Manticore, First name: The"). The animation seamlessly blends goofy, stylized aspects with some stunning realism, such as the Middle-earth-like landscapes or a car-chase sequence that borrows (in a family-friendly way) from Mad Max: Fury Road.

Scanlon could perhaps take his own advice and head onward and upward, perhaps expanding the movie’s world-building premise beyond the clever references to Harry Potter and Tolkien and Guardians of the Galaxy. But the central story, which is simple but heartfelt, and the main characters, who are likable and relatable, work very well.

Oh, and for viewers wondering where Onward stands on the Pixar cry-o-meter: This is not quite the weep-fest of Toy Story 3, but it will probably make you a bit teary.

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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