Pixar is known for tackling the chewy stuff head on – death, the end of childhood, a rodent running a restaurant – but even so, the central conceit of its new fantasy adventure takes some adjusting to. A pair of grieving elf brothers turn to magic to reanimate, for 24 emotional hours, the dad they never really knew. But the spell is broken halfway through, leaving them with, well, half a dad. With only the legs operational and the missing top half flopping around under layers of clothes, the three bluff their way through a quest to find a magical gem and finish the job. A rat that can cook? Sure. A loose remake of ’80s corpse-com ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’? Did not see that coming.
The quest’s surprising third wheel offers the movie’s funniest moments – there’s a drink-driving gag that you’re point-blank never explaining to your kids – but it’s the two teenage brothers who provide its heart and soul. Director Dan Scanlon (‘Monsters University’) has popped across the Disney lot and raided Marvel for the pair: Tom Holland voices the initially magic-wary, study-focused Ian; Chris Pratt has a blast as his older brother Barley, a larger-than-life loafer with his head in the kingdom’s long-abandoned lore (he drives a van called Guinevere). He’s on ‘the world’s longest gap year’ grumbles their mum (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who just wants help keeping unicorns away from the garbage.
Set in a fantastical land populated by evolved cyclops, fauns, mages and all manner of mythical fauna who have switched from magic to mod cons , ‘Onward’ is a cometh-of-age tale that makes playful capital from our habit of turning the past into touristy kitsch. If you’ve ever been to one of those novelty medieval banquets, you’ll get a kick out of the Manticore’s Tavern: a gimmicky fantasy dining hall that’s presided over with weary resignation by an ex-monster, the Manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer), who’s been forced to sell out her rip-roaring past. Does this conceit feel a bit rich coming from a company that literally built a Magic Kingdom? Yes. Yes, it does. Then the adventure gallops on and the thought disappears in Guinevere’s rear view.
Yet, if ‘Onward’ seeks to summon the spirit of ‘The Goonies’ – of magic buried beneath the everyday – its blood-sugar levels never hit those giddy heights. The laughs aren’t quite as raucous as they ought to be; the riffs not quite as clever (though it feels significant to spot Pixar’s first LGBTQ+ character, even in passing). There’s a little inspiration missing in its bog-standard hero’s journey – even if the bog is a magical one.
Where the movie truly comes into its own is in its boldly framed, heart-wrenching coda. It’d be criminal to spoil it, but suffice to say it compares well to Pixar’s very best endings, from the final farewell in ‘Toy Story 3’ to Anton Ego’s review in ‘Ratatouille’. ‘Onward’ is inspired by its director’s relationship with his dad and suddenly that’s how it feels: like a sepia snapshot of something deeply personal and moving. Any Antons out there would argue that it’s a moment of pure magic that shows up the rest of the movie. I’d say that it’s the jewel in a pretty presentable crown.