Dungeons, dragons and tugged heartstrings are on tap in the animated fantasy adventure “Onward
,” a Pixar movie that doesn’t really feel like a Pixar movie.
Is it fun? Yep. Does it have big stars? Sure, a pair of them in Marvel superheroes Chris Pratt and Tom Holland. Will it make you cry? Oh, heck yeah. But there’s a different style at play than the usual super-slick Pixar cartoon, and “Onward” (★★★ out of four; rated PG; in theaters nationwide March 6) enlists a heap of brotherly love and a freewheeling, retro sense of humor – think garbage-picking unicorns and airbrushed vans named after King Arthur’s main squeeze.
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Co-written and directed by Dan Scanlon (“Monsters University”), “Onward” presents a previously magical landscape that’s evolved into a modern suburbia with centaur cops and fairy biker gangs. Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Holland) is an elf who’s turning 16 but has always had an affection for the father he never knew, listening to old tapes of his dad’s voice and rocking the old man’s ratty college sweatshirt.
On his birthday, Ian’s mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), gives him and his over-the-top older brother, Barley (Pratt), a gift she’s been holding for the right time: a wizard’s staff, a powerful Phoenix Gem and a spell to bring back Dad for 24 hours. Ian discovers he’s the enchanted one of the twosome, yet the magic goes awry and conjures only their father’s bottom half.
Taking him on the road a la “Weekend at Bernie’s,” the siblings go on a somewhat epic quest to find another gem to finish off the spell, run into 1,000-year-old lion/scorpion/woman warrior Corey (Octavia Spencer) – who now operates a medieval Chuck E. Cheese-like joint – and need to beat the clock or else never get to spend precious moments with their lost loved one.
The brothers Lightfoot are familiar personalities for the two “Onward” stars. Ian, a shy kid yearning for his dad’s bold confidence, is akin to Holland’s nerdy roles in the Spider-Man movies and “Spies in Disguise,” while burly Barley has notes of Pratt’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” rogue, though is more goofy Andy Dwyer from “Parks and Recreation.” Combined, their yin-yang dynamic propels the narrative momentum and is absolutely crucial to the emotional and action-packed denouement.
The movie’s vision of a world that needs to find its magic again is impressively designed, and Scanlon has filled it with cool details (instead of history books, the mythology is told via Barley’s favorite role-playing game), though not enough of its potential is explored as the story needs to shift to the siblings’ central plot and character arcs. It’s the sort of thing built to be explored more in a Disney+ show one day, and until then, Laurel and Corey’s rescue subplot does some of that job.
“Onward” definitely doesn’t look like a Pixar movie, considering a sword-and-sorcery facade that’s ready-made for hair metal rather than the chirpy Randy Newman song you might expect, and character designs that seem carved from the mold of “Trolls” and “How to Train Your Dragon.” Yet in this film, where a convenience store is filled with sprites (the supernatural creatures, not the soda), defying animated expectations succeeds in expanding the feel of the Pixar movies. And in an era where there are more sequels from the studio than originals, the freshness is welcome.
Like a highly watchable amalgam of “Field of Dreams,” “Zootopia” and Arthurian legend, the colorful crusade features a solid hero’s journey with a slam-dunk of a finale. One might get the urge to play “Dungeons & Dragons” afterward (which is totally normal, so embrace your heart’s fire there), and best of all, “Onward” introduces two breakout bros who fantastically fit into the same universe that gave us Buzz and Woody.