Onward finds Pixar in full-on weird mode, and it's a surprisingly good look for the company. Their patented mixture of warm humor and emotional themes is still present, it's just wrapped up in a freewheeling story that goes down some appealingly bizarre paths. For the first fifteen or twenty minutes, the approach feels a bit shaky. Then, once the formal plot kicks in, the movie springs to life, becoming more and more fun the longer it goes on.
Tom Holland provides the voice of Ian Lightfoot, a teenage elf who is struggling with self-esteem and worried about learning to drive. His biggest issue, though, is that he never got to meet his father, who died before he was born. The closest thing Ian has ever had to a father figure is his screw-up older brother Barley (Chris Pratt), a rambunctious guy who drives a van, listens to heavy metal music, and is obsessed with a Dungeons & Dragons-type fantasy game.
On Ian's birthday, mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives the boys a gift left to them by their father. It's a magic staff, along with a special stone that powers it. There's also an instruction sheet on how to cast a spell that will bring him back to life for one day. When Ian casts the spell, the stone accidentally breaks. Dad does indeed return, but only from the belt down. Ian and Barley then set out on a quest to find a replacement stone before time runs out. What they don't realize is that there's a danger of them unleashing a curse. As soon as Laurel catches on to this, she enlists the help of a former warrior called the Manticore (Octavia Spencer) to track the boys down.
Onward deals with some heavy subject matter, specifically losing a parent and all the things somebody would want to say to that parent if they had just one more day to do so. The movie looks at it from two angles. Ian just wants the opportunity to meet his father and make a few basic memories together. Barley, on the other hand, has an unresolved matter that he's looking to rectify. Tackling the theme of loss gives the film real heart. Ian and Barley's quest is engrossing because the stakes are enormous.
Of course, if you're going to address death, humor goes a long way toward helping it go down smoothly. Onward indulges in goofy, intentionally weird humor to soften the blow. Most notably, it's hilarious to see the two main characters walking around with their father, who is just a pair of legs. Dad has to tap his foot to see if his sons are near him, and in one of the funniest scenes, he feels the vibration of music and begins dancing. Comedy also comes in the form of crazy obstacles Ian and Barley face on their quest, including a biker gang whose members are sprites.
As is the case with all Pixar movies, Onward is beautifully animated. So many of the action scenes pop visually. A sequence involving an invisible bridge makes you grip your armrests. The climactic battle, meanwhile, finds the brothers pitted against an unusual-looking villain (no spoilers). It could have been cheesy, yet the animation really sells what the creature is and what it's made of.
Onward ultimately hits a good mixture of comedy, action, and emotion. The movie concludes with a scene that is guaranteed to tug at your heartstrings – or possibly pull them right out of your body. Even if it doesn't quite hit the heights of the Toy Story pictures or Inside Out, this is another strong Pixar effort with widespread appeal.
out of four
Onward is rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.