Opening March 5, 2020
Directed by: Dan Scanlon
Writing credits: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin
Principal actors: Animation with voiceovers by Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Octavia Spencer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, John Ratzenberger
Disney/Pixar still has fun ideas, as we witness in this animated film about brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot, who live with their widowed mother and the family pet – a small dragon – in New Mushroomton. Ian, the younger of the two, is shy, speaks rarely at high school and has no friends. It’s his 16th birthday – a good opportunity to change this situation by inviting classmates to a party. Naturally, the idea fails to develop, partly due to the rowdy behavior of Ian’s older brother Barley, who is not only wildly outgoing, but also much fatter than Ian. There is, however, a birthday surprise: a present from their deceased father, which mother Laurel has been saving all these years. It’s a wizard’s stick with which Ian can make magic. His first trick is an attempt to bring their father back to life for 24 hours. It only partly works, literally; Ian brings Father back to life, but only from the waist down. Ian and Barley take off in Barley’s van to find a new Phoenix gem, which is necessary to complete Father’s transition. This takes them to the Manticore Tavern and then down the Path of Peril and, “onward” to Raven’s Point. Laurel is worried and jumps into her car to find the “lost” boys.
Director Dan Scanlon and his talented team bring us wonderful, colorful, animated, very humorous figures of different species. Ian and his family are elves. Policeman Colt Bronco is half human, half horse. There are small bee-like characters who ride motorcycles. Some are monster-like, including Manticore, who runs the tavern. There are scary and dangerous moments, which always keep our attention, such as walking on thin air across a mountainous chasm. Although their world is fantasy, it is modern fantasy, with electric lights, mobile phones, and crowded highways. Naturally, there is a moral to the story, emphasizing loyalty and support, going “onward” both literally and figuratively. Probably, the film will be available for children six years and older. It is perfect for the whole family, including teenagers, considering that Ian is 16 and his brother about 18. Onward showed in the Special section of the 2020 Berlinale. ()
Pixar Studio sprinkles some mythical sparkle, reminding audiences how good enchantment is. Since, “long ago the world was full of wonder, and best of all there was magic. …[N]ot easy to master, so (the) world found an easier way to get by.” Thus, on Ian’s sixteenth birthday he learns tricks from bygone days, plus one of life’s more important lessons.
Life in New Mushroomton’s suburbs is fairly standard—unicorns curbside foraging, centaurs driving, and since Dad’s death, the elf family take things in stride. Whereas Barley (Chris Pratt) is bold, if not somewhat thick and into magic traditions and wisdom, younger brother Ian (Tom Holland) is careful, shy and into science. Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) encourages him, but Ian is convinced otherwise. Disheartened, Ian perks-up when Mom retrieves Dad’s present to him and Barley once they are sixteen; amazingly, they unwrap a wizard stick, Phoenix stone, and letter. Excitedly, Barley explains everything; after testing the staff its truth emerges. But when the magic charm stalls halfway through, exposing only Dad’s lower torso, Barley convinces Ian that the key is In Quest of Yore. With only a 24-hour window of time to materialize Dad’s upper half, they take off in Guinevere, with Mom traipsing close behind. In addition to meeting Manticore (Octavia Spencer), a sprite biker gang, and encountering Mom’s cop boyfriend (Mel Rodriguez), their quest uncovers elements of the unknown in one another.
In Onward Pixar, Disney’s subsidiary, reclaims magic with its original storyline (first since Coco, 2017). Director-writer Dan Scanlon and Kori Rae producer team up again (Monster University, 2013) with this heartening, perceptive dip into male relationships: father-sons, and between brothers. Combining comedic elements—dragging Dad around on a leash, surprises—the modified manticore’s (a winged lion/dragon/scorpion creature) den, daring—Ian crossing the gorge, and downright scary moments—a wickedly fast-rising water snare, Onward’s gentler revelations revolve around female role models—Mom and Manticore (both charismatically voiced) blend compassion, fierceness, decency, and in the teens burgeoning brotherhood.
Holland and Pratt’s talented voice work hits the entire emotive gauntlet adding depth, as do the cast, and believability, and Jeff Danna and Mychael Danna’s music is jaunty and tender. Onward’s superstars are the many computer animation and CGI (computer-generated imagery) teams’ fresh, and richly detailed characters and settings: mushroom-capped homes and bigger-than-life residents that could be anywhere, or everywhere. Perhaps Scanlon’s personal perspective (father dying when he was only one) tilted the scales, but there is a poignancy often missing in male bonding narratives, particularly the father and sons’ scene toward the end. A sure-fire family pleaser, Onward proves there “is a little magic left.” 110 minutes