Directed by Dan Scanlon | Written by Scanlon, Keith Bunin and Jason Headley | 102 min | On Demand
You may note a welcome familiarity to the busy plot structure and suburban milieu of this Disney Pixar picture — despite the elves and magical overtones, this could be an ’80’s Amblin live-action feature, complete with cassette tapes and other weird ’80s references. (Anyone else see the Weekend At Bernie’s homage?)
Onward takes a little time to settle in and locate the magic, but it’s very much worth the trip.
We’re smothered in a clumsy backstory in the opening 20 minutes, which goes something like this: The world was once a magical place, but while elves and unicorns and centaurs and toadstool houses still exist, science and technology just made everything easier, so magic has been largely forgotten. We meet two elven brothers: burly, brawny fantasy-believer Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt), and awkward, introverted just-turned-16 Ian (voiced by Tom Holland). They’re given a gift from their long dead father — a spell that will bring Dad back for a day so he can hang out with his grown sons — though not in a zombie way.
So far, so Disney. I mean, I’m down with the retro ’80s mood, the fantasy universe building, etc., but a dead parent on top of all that? When will they leave that behind?
Here’s the thing — the winning characters, support from voices from talent like Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, and Tracey Ullman, and commitment to the plot that regularly throws delightful obstacles and action set-pieces in Ian and Barley’s path, it all delivers a slice of pure entertainment. And the ode to brothers, a lot like Frozen was for sisterhood, is lovely.
The lesson that in order to get what we want in life we must trust in ourselves, our loved ones, and take a risk now and then? That’s a theme anyone should be able to get behind. The movie also provides a healthy model for how to process grief — so, in other words, no less ambitious than your average Pixar joint.
And boldfaced borrowing, including lifts/homages from/to Harry Potter, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Back To The Future, while total daylight banditry, is all so good-natured it’ll take a bigger curmudgeon than me to fault.