Through tales of toys, cars, monsters, robots, and rats, Pixar has created a reputation for jaw-dropping cinema that speaks to the tenderest parts of the human experience. Their latest offering, Onward, centers on an average teen boy, who has totally common concerns. He frets over making friends. He fears learning to drive, and he worries over what path to take to become a good man, like his late father. The only thing that sets this plucky hero apart from the boy next door is that Ian Lightfoot is an elf.Directed by Dan Scanlon, Onward is set in a world of elves, centaurs, Cyclopes, satyrs, and pixies, a world that was once full of magic, wonder, and adventure. However, once technological advances lead to a slew of modern conveniences like indoor lighting, gas stoves, and cell phones, these mythical creatures gave up on their wild side, turned their backs on the relics of old, and lost touch with magic. Nowadays, they live in a cozy town where houses are shaped like toadstools, skyscrapers have castle-like towers, and instead of raccoons rummaging through garbage cans, they’ve got mangy, hissing unicorns.
Amid all this, is Ian (Tom Holland with an American accent), a bashful birthday boy who has just turned 16. According to his brash brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), who is obsessed with role-playing games and magical history, this milestone means Ian must go on a quest to prove his manhood. Ian’s not interested until his mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) unveils a special gift from the father he has never met. It’s a staff, a gem, and an incantation that can bring the boys’ dad back for one day.
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But magic isn’t easy. One wrong move and poof: their dad is only half back. The bottom half, loafers to purple socks to pleated khakis, then just nothing but a bit of blue mist above his belt. Now, Ian and Barley must team up on a quest for an ancient artifact that will give them a second crack at this reunion. And they must do it before the clock runs out!
It’s a charming story that will tug at your heartstrings from the very start with its tale of father-son yearning and brotherly love. Then the waist-high Dad twist gives a jaunty weirdness that allows for a slew of silly visual gags, some of which seem snatched from Weekend at Bernie’s. Much like the Monsters Inc. movies, Onward makes the most out of its fantastical setting by dropping in all kinds of curious creatures in thoughtful ways. Instead of a giddy puppy scampering underfoot, the Lightfoot family has a little pet dragon. Instead of a mounted police officer, this neighborhood is looked after by centaur cop named Officer Colt Bronco (a bouncy Mel Rodriquez). And rather than your biker gang of big, burly dudes, there’s a gang of mostly female pixies, who are small yet just as burly and raring to tear down the road and fly into the fray.
An impeccable voice cast brings these legendary creatures to vibrant life. As he has for the MCU’s Spider-Man, Holland delivers an aw-shucks sweetness as Ian, playing flustered and fascinated with equal gusto. Pratt brings his signature blend of goofiness, giddiness, and a bro-y bravado to Barley, creating a D&D nerd who breaks the stereotype’s confining mold. Louis-Dreyfus gives Big Mom Energy with plenty of warmth, edged with never-say-die moxie. Together, the three of them paint a tonal tapestry that glistens with intimacy, which makes the family’s moments of tribulations and triumphs gloriously resonant. However, the scene-stealer of Onward is Octavia Spencer as the Manticore, claws down.
A storied actress who has gamely dived into prestige drama (Hidden Figures), twisted sci-fi (Snowpiercer), irreverent comedy (Drunk History) and even psycho-biddy horror (Ma), Spencer brings her diva grandness to this mighty beast, who has the claws and brawn of a lion, the stinging tail of a scorpion, and massive bat-like wings. When we first meet the Manticore, she’s lost touch with her savage side and has turned her once rowdy tavern into a family-friendly theme restaurant where tater tots are handed out far more often than quests. However, Ian and Barley aren’t the only parties who set out for adventure in Onward. A B-plot involving the Manticore not only allows for some more grown-up-aimed gags (like jokes about seedy pawn shops and cramped cars) but also gives Spencer room to spread her wings and get wild. And her excitement is absolutely contagious.