Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman
After proving that there was more “Toy Story” to tell last year and winning the golden statue for the best-animated film of the year, Disney Pixar takes risks in 2020 with two original stories. “Onward” is the first release, and “Soul” comes to us this summer. As an original, stand-alone project, “Onward” is a welcomed departure from rehashed old material. It’s a movie that should capture kiddie imaginations and bring a tear to the eyes of parents.
“Onward” is set in a fantasy world that has abandoned magic in favor of the convenience and reliability of technology. So, in this strange but familiar land, unicorns have become like our garbage-diving raccoons, and pixies no longer remember how to fly. But when two teenage elves get a wizard’s staff as a belated gift from their long-departed dad, they embark on a quest. If they are successful, they will be able to spend the better part of a day with their resurrected father.
Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) is the younger of the elvish twosome. He’s just turned 16, and his social anxiety prevented him from asking anyone from school to have cake to celebrate his birthday. His nerdy, ne’er-do’-well older brother Barley (voice of Chris Pratt) tools around in an old conversion van he calls Guinevere. He’s enthusiastic about his little bro’s big day, but his bombastic behavior proves to be embarrassing.
Their responsible, fun-loving mother, Laurel (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus), recognizes that Ian is feeling a little down. She decides to give the boys a gift that she’s been hiding until both of them are 16 or older. It’s this present, a wizard’s staff, that promises to give Ian and Barley a chance to make new memories with their father, who died when they were little.
But in their techno-world, magic is persona non grata. And although Barley is a believer, Ian needs some convincing. But when he accidentally starts his father’s spell, Ian is successful in bringing just half of the man back to life. Standing awkwardly in his bedroom are the legs and feet of a loved one that he can’t remember. But that lower torso remembers him, and if Ian and Barley can complete the spell, the rest of their father will be there, at least, for a little while.
Barley is educated in the history of magic from playing Dungeons & Dragons-style role-playing games. So, with half-a-dad in tow, he proposes that the brothers take to the open road aboard his trusty steed Guinevere to find a rare stone that will finish the spell. But since Ian started the spell already, the clock is ticking. They have less than a day.
The plot structure of “Onward” is like so many animated adventures. Expect highs and lows as they move ever onward in their quest. And a slam-bang, action-packed, perfunctory conclusion is all but inevitable.
But what works here is the relationship between the siblings and their adoring, protective mother. This modern family unit is sturdy. Mom, in particular, is an independent woman. She’s even got a boyfriend named Colt Bronco (voiced by Mel Rodriguez), who is a clumsy, well-meaning police officer that’s part man and part horse. It’s this family dynamic that overcomes the formulaic elements.
The animation is naturally top-notch. Pixar creates an entirely new and enchanting world filled with all sorts of fantastic characters. Those portly unicorns that hang out around garbage cans and in dark places are particularly stand-out.
The idea that magic has been lost by technological advances is not so foreign to the world that we inhabit. At one point, Ian plays an old cassette tape containing a few words spoken by his father. In Ian’s time and place, digital replaced so much, and analog holds a link to his past, as it does to our’s as well.
The magic in our history is in how we got here, how all this incredible technology came to exist. And if we ignore history and take everything for granted, turning our back on the old ways, we may find, as the cliché goes, history repeating itself.
“Onward” is the kind of timely family movie that’s about more than just getting to the end of a fantastic quest.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com