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REVIEW – “Onward”: Pixar’s Latest Drives Around Familiar Territory with a Fresh Engine

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The unique, vibrant, adventurous world of Pixar’s films is growing a little bigger, and my inner 2nd grader is smiling from ear to ear. With each film, original or otherwise, to venture into a fantastic, well-designed world beyond our own where no detail is ignored, that’s always been one of the finest hallmarks any of their films will accomplish easily. It may just be their non-sequel fare that will always draw me in a bit more. And after two summers with overdue follow-ups that couldn’t completely match their predecessors, seeing a very fresh story out of a surprisingly fruitful mesh between a near-medieval landscape and your standard road trip movie, there’s the return to pace many fans will have been craving for. Onward, Pixar’s 22nd film in a quarter-century of entertaining audiences on a large-scale brings us back to that side of the studio unafraid to take a few risks here and there for the sake of a very ingenious, if not overly familiar story.

That ingenuity hits the viewer almost immediately, where we’re thrown into a world of magical creatures. Where magic and sorcery once ruled the lands, only to be replaced by industry and technology, in the fictitious town of New Mushroomton. Almost like New Jersey, in a way, where the suburbs dotted by mushroom-shaped homes feel so close to the big city. And in one of these homes resides young Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), just turning 16 and on the cusp on adulthood, with all the awkwardness he can bear.

He’s a blue elf with a firm lineage and a lively family dynamic, championed by metalhead older bro Barley (Chris Pratt), and doting mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). The three of them holding on well with a big what if, the long absence of their late father weighing heavily, him having succumbed to cancer before Ian was born. Thus, Ian’s supposedly left with no legit figure to look to, if his brother’s rather a screwup, and his police officer stepdad (Mel Rodriguez) is a bit of a folksy goof in his own right.

What if they could bring him back? That’s where the whole magic thing comes into play, as the youngster attempts to bring the father he never really knew back to life, if only for one day. Using relics their father had left behind, the two elf sons use their rudimentary experience of magic to bring him bak to life. Of course, that lack of education and focus causes a mild snafu in the spell. Long story short, their top half is missing. Overexcited as he is, Barley, the geek who thrives best in legends lost in time, will teach his guidance-challenged sib a few things on a grand and glorious quest in his steed of a van, triumphantly named Gwynevere, wherein they only have a day to complete the spell.

And it’s a long day filled with treachery, peril, fighting massive beasts, near-death experiences, and some of the most genuine humor I’ll have noticed in a Pixar feature since, perhaps, Inside Out. It is a solidly built film in the hands of director Dan Scanlon, his awaited follow-up to helming the divisive 2013 prequel Monsters University. With no franchise to tie him down, his special eye for storytelling, assisted by co-writers Jason Headley (A Bad Idea Gone Wrong) and Keith Bunin (Horns) is permitted to shine at total brightness. A very personal tale done with great class, and even greater freedom. One that can speak to that enthusiastic spirit of growing up, without being increasingly clichéd. It’s awkward, difficult, and we’re unsure of whether we’re doing the right thing for ourselves. Ian’s in the best position to approach that quandary head-on, aided by the least likely of people who could therefore become your greatest life’s ally when no one else can be there.

It has been done before, the combined Disney/Pixar canon have achieved the whole “sibling rivalry and reconciliation” tale in different forms. Scanlon, while adhering to formula, keeps the adventure perpetually interesting, the humorous writing flying like parking tickets blowing in the wind. The overt outside influences aiding the plot, without being obvious callbacks. Yes, it feels a lot like a medieval-like crossbreed between A Goofy Movie, Due Date, Weekend at Bernie’s, and the final act of any Tolkien novel, if an astonishing set piece only seen near the film’s climax is proof enough. Some legit elements of Dungeons and Dragons have been licensed and thrown in for very good measure, as well. But it doesn’t ever appear like its inherent motivations, spinning in its own delightful direction throughout.

Holland and Pratt, once they can look past their pre-established character tropes, unite for a buddy duo camaraderie that’ll be difficult to replicate any time soon. Looking out for each other, and enjoying the journey they’re sharing, to break free of a broken past, and look ahead to a heroic future. Them, along with Louis-Dreyfus who could be the understated mom of the year, and Octavia Spencer laying down the charm factor as a domesticated manticore right out of Barley’s RPG. She’ll join in after destroying her faulted tavern, mirroring that of a Chuck E. Cheese in the early 2000s. Her reawakening into prior magic will be the moment most likely for audiences’ jaws to fall, witnessing a grand change of character at the drop of a pin. Spencer, like her castmates, nails it down to a mild, imprecise T.

In a year where we’ll be treated to a second Pixar film in its traditional mid-June opening slot, and where eight months from now we’ll be celebrating the silver anniversary of their feature debut, Onward is very much at home in early March, that time of year when forward-thinking is a constant. Such is how Scanlon operates his exuberant celebration of sibling love amid great crisis and grief. In pure Pixar fashion, you’ll feel everything; just expect more yuks than tears. It will look spectacular and eye catching, no surprise there. And it will be a bit too easy to become invested in these new characters, not unlike how we felt the first time we caught glimpse of Buzz, or Sulley, or Dory. When all those elements are working together, even if the plot doesn’t scream instant masterpiece material, it’s still a fun romp worth revisiting frequently. Speaking to the hardcore fans, the underdogs, the unashamed geeks, and kids looking for some form of direction, Onward truly, and affectionately, lives up to its title. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)

Onward (and accompanying Simpsons short Playdate with Destiny) opens in wide release this weekend; rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements; 107 minutes.