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Fractured fairy tale – ‘Onward’

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Obviously, I love Pixar movies. I’m a human being with feelings and a soul, so of course I dig the work of the acclaimed animation studio. That being said, I also have to accept that because they have set the bar so very high, there will be occasions in which they fail to clear it.

So it is with their latest offering “Onward,” a film that, were it to come from any other studio, would likely be hailed as great work, but because it bears the Pixar name, it feels just the slightest bit underwhelming.

Make no mistake – “underwhelming” is by no means the same as “bad” – this is actually a charming and fun film. The concept is interesting enough, the vocal performances are typically strong and the execution is quite good. Jokes are made and heartstrings are tugged. All the usual pieces are here. It just doesn’t quite ascend to the level of accomplishment that we’ve come to expect from the studio.

In a world of elves and centaurs and other magical creatures, wizards sit atop the hierarchy. However, wielding magic is challenging and difficult – so difficult that other methods of getting things done start getting adopted. Specifically, technology. And with the spread of technology, the ways of magic quietly fade away.

In the present day, these creatures live lives not unlike our own. They have jobs and smart phones, they drive cars and watch TV. The ways of the magical past are no more. It’s in this world that we meet teenaged elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland, “Dolittle”), a quiet kid who loves science. It’s quite the contrast with his gregarious older brother Barley (Chris Pratt, “Avengers: Endgame”), whose two passions are his van (named Guinevere) and tabletop RPGs (ostensibly based on real magical history). The two live with their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Downhill”), who has raised them on her own following the passing of her husband years earlier.

On Ian’s 16th birthday, Laurel gives him something left to him by his dad with instructions to hand it over after both boys are 16. It turns out to be a wizard’s staff … along with a spell that will bring their dad back for one day. And when Ian tries to cast the spell, it works. Well – it half works.

Literally – the spell brings back their dad’s legs.

The brothers must undertake a quest to track down a magical gem that will power the staff sufficiently to complete the spell and give them a few precious hours with their father. It won’t be easy, to be sure. Along the way, they encounter a once-fearsome Manticore (Octavia Spencer, “Ma”) whose current vocation is something altogether more mundane and an angry biker gang made up of pixies, among others. They also have to dodge Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez, TV’s “On Becoming a God in Central Florida”), a local cop who also happens to be their mom’s boyfriend.

The quest presents all manner of obstacles – physical, intellectual, emotional, you name it – and every tick of the clock is one more second of their reunion forever lost.

“Onward” is built on the sort of high-concept silliness that works well in animated fare. The notion of a world of magic that succumbs to the siren song of technology is certainly engaging on a narrative level while also leaving plenty of room for the type of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it background gags at which Pixar excels. And of course, as always, it is beautiful to look at.

Dan Scanlon has been part of the animation world for two decades, starting with Disney before sliding over to Pixar. He both wrote and directed this film, the second time he’s pulled double duty for Pixar (following 2013’s “Monsters University”); it’s obvious he understands the fundamentals of the studio’s ethos. But while everything is extremely well-executed, there’s a spark that’s somewhat lacking here (although it must be said that the film ultimately finds its footing in the third act).

We get typically strong vocal performances from the cast. Holland has proven himself more than capable of handling the shy, vaguely sad teenager; he’s a solid lead. Louis-Dreyfus does good work as the harried, loving mom. Spencer is great as the Manticore in crisis, while Rodriguez captures the “not my dad” dad vibe as Colt. Lena Waithe, Ali Wong and Tracey Ullman all have great scenes. And in terms of energy, Pratt’s Barley might be the closest he’s gotten to Andy Dwyer energy since “Parks and Recreation” said so long; it’s a real delight, joyful in a way that the IP franchise machine rarely allows him to fully embrace.

The biggest issue with this film is how overtly familiar it feels, as if the movie was assembled from parts selected from other Pixar movies. It’s just a bit more piecemeal than we’ve come to expect – the seams are showing. All that being said, there’s a whole lot to love here. I laughed and I cried, as did just about everyone else in the theater. It might not be apex Pixar, but we’re not talking “Cars 2,” either.

In the end, it’s simple – “Onward” is very good. It just isn’t quite great, and greatness is what we’ve come to expect from Pixar.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 March 2020 09:23

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