Pixar and Disney continue to be an unstoppable team as their latest endeavor, “Onward,” journeys to theaters this weekend.
Things haven’t always been easy for the Lightfoot family, having lost their patriarch sixteen years ago. Ian (Tom Holland) never met his father, who died before he was born. Older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) has only four memories of his dad, but never lets that get him down. The brothers couldn’t be more different, but with their devoted mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), they manage to be a happy family.
The good people at Pixar are especially adept at taking familiar tropes and concepts and turning them into stories that feel fresh. Once again, they have done it with “Onward,” a story that is predictable in nearly every way, but still gives us characters we can care about and root for.
Ian is a nerdy, shy, Peter Parker-type and we really want him to pluck up the courage to invite his schoolmates to his birthday party. Barley is an underachiever with a heart of gold and we can’t wait to see him get himself together and do something with his boundless energy and enthusiasm. On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, Laurel presents her boys a shared gift from their father. One he wanted them to have once they were both old enough. It’s a wizard’s staff and the instructions for bringing him back for just one day so that he can see the young men they have grown up to be. Naturally, things go wrong. And Ian and Barley end up on a perilous quest that will test their own resolve and their relationship to each other.
It would be easy to dismiss “Onward” as a cute family movie that happens to take place in a fantasy world. There are elves and cyclopses and manticores. Feral unicorns forage through garbage cans on trash day. The chief of police is a centaur. Trolls and ogres and wizards and all the other creatures we know and love from the history of fantasy live and work and study together in New Mushroomton, a modern day suburbia in which the conveniences of technological advancement long ago made these mythical creatures set aside their innate abilities and eventually forget the things that made them special. Ultimately, this is a film about finding oneself. About learning from the past in order to understand who we are, and also to know how we can make the future better. It is also a beautiful message about family – not only the family we live with and see every day, but the ancestors that came before us.
In that sense, “Onward” shares some common themes with other beloved movies like “Coco,” “Moana,” and “Frozen 2.” Both films tap into the ever-growing popularity of genealogy and the Old Testament precept of “turning the hearts of the children to the fathers.” In the case of Ian and Barley, they literally turn to their father, a man they have only gotten to know through the memories of others. But in their quest to fulfill his gift and resurrect him for one day, the things that go wrong along the way only help them turn their hearts even farther into the past. Along the way, they get acquainted not only with their dad, but those who came before him. And they also get to develop a deeper understanding of their mother and each other.
The voice cast is perfect. Holland does infuse Ian with his best Spider-Man quirks and insecurities, but it suits the character and avoids becoming a distraction. Pratt, meanwhile, brings a little something more to his lovable oaf. Unlike some of Pratt’s real-life endearing slackers, Barley has more earnestness to him and that gnawing sense that he has plenty of valuable contributions to offer if only people would give him the encouragement and opportunity to step up. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is delightfully exasperated. And an easy fan favorite is Octavia Spencer as Cory the Manticore. She is funny, sassy, smart and fierce. Spencer thrives in audacious roles and the last few years it has been especially great to see her get more opportunities to play them.
Director and co-writer Dan Scanlon came into “Onward” with few expectations after his last Pixar feature, “Monsters University” in 2013. While that film has been somewhat unfairly derided, he has managed to gift us with another emotional journey that, in some ways, feels more like it was made from grown ups than kids. Children will enjoy this too, but for much different reasons than their parents and aunts and uncles will. Scanlons’ tale is mature in the sense that it can only be fully understood and appreciated by those who have experienced some life. This is for those who have grieved and have felt lost and have struggled to find their place. It is about fitting in by learning how you stand out. The colors are pretty and the scenery is fun, but most importantly, this is one of Pixar’s most effectively emotional projects. This is a must-see.
“Onward” is distributed by Disney and is now in theaters nationwide.