Movie review: There’s magic in the air and on the road in Disney/Pixar’s ‘Onward’
It’s a Disney film and it’s a Pixar film, so there are going to be a few givens. Among them, some big laughs (yes, we have sight gags galore), some sadness (mom is raising two teen sons, dad is dead, and is missed), some adventure (so much of it! Magic spells that go wrong, a quest that involves a curse, a gang of bad-tempered miniature motorcyclists, a plea for help to a “winged lion scorpion lady,” lots more).
After a narrated introduction that looks back to olden days and explains how the world was once full of wonder, and there was magic everywhere, everything jumps to contemporary times (people have cell phones) and a modern, if commonplace, city (but the slogan on cop cars reads “Serve the Realm”).
Many of the people in town look somewhat normal (in an elfin way), though there are quite a few cyclopes mingling in with everyone else, and no one’s batting an eye at them, or at the little pet dragons. And there are two moons in the sky. Oh, and despite the minor weirdnesses, magic is long gone.
The story begins on the 16th birthday of Ian (voice of Tom Holland), a lost soul who’s a little too serious about life for his age, and who wishes he knew more of his father than old photos and a recording of his voice. Ian’s older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) is a big, happy, lovable lug who’s into driving his beat-up old van and playing Dungeons and Dragons-like games. The boys live with their strong, feisty, and funny mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who frets about Ian fretting all the time. But she has some good news for both boys. For Ian’s birthday, she gives them a shared gift, something from their late dad, who left instructions that she should do this once they’ve both turned 16.
It’s a wizard stick, along with a complementary Phoenix gem which, when used in tandem with a special rebirth spell, will bring dad back for 24 hours. Sounds like someone’s seen Spielberg’s “A.I Artificial Intelligence” a few too many times, as that has a similar major plot device. But any resemblance to that film quickly vanishes when the spell doesn’t work. Soon after, the Phoenix gem is destroyed, then the spell does work - sort of - and “Onward” begins to feel like its creators are making the story very strange just for the sake of making it strange.
To explain that, here’s a partial story spoiler: Only part of dad goes through rebirth ... his legs and feet. Oh, no! Are Ian’s dreams of finally meeting his dad going to be shattered? Of course not! Without telling mom what’s up, Ian and Barley hop in the van, head out to find another Phoenix gem (it’s a quest, remember?), and in one fell swoop have an adventure and get to know each other.
So, does this mean that magic is back in the world? The Manticore (Octavia Spencer, showing off some great comic timing) - you know, that “winged lion scorpion lady” - thinks so. And though she’s given up her own quest days to run a kid-friendly, magic-themed restaurant, it doesn’t take much convincing to get to track down her trusty old Curse Crusher sword from the pawn shop. Yes, there’s a Guardian Curse attached to any quest for the Phoenix gem. There are also lots of other spells that might or might not go wrong, from a disguise spell to a growth spell to a levitation spell.
Because this is a Disney/Pixar concoction, you can safely wager that there will be a happy ending, even if it’s tinged with a touch of the bittersweet. And on the way to it, the laughs will be balanced by wild action and teary sentimentality. But one enjoyably puzzling piece of the film’s puzzle will remain unsolved: Why does mom use Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” as her ringtone?
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Written by Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin; directed by Dan Scanlon
With voices of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer