By some stroke of wizardry, Disney-Pixar’s fantasy-adventure Onward (★★★☆☆) casts a spell of questing action and brotherly love that magically obscures the movie’s lapses in its own logic and obvious mechanics. Formulaic might best describe the story, which ticks off the protagonist’s precisely handwritten goals like boxes on an audience survey card, asking, “What would you like to see the hero accomplish?”
That hero is Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), a bright, unassuming elf celebrating his sixteenth birthday in a wondrous world of dragons, mermaids, and Pegasus unicorns. Every imaginable fantasy creature can be found dwelling in Ian’s peaceful hometown of Mushroomton, where, according to the prologue, the magic of yore has faded into memory. So now these elves, trolls, cyclopes, and things live like ordinary suburban Americans — uh, Mushroomtonians. The joking juxtaposition of outlandish beasts and beings just shopping, riding the bus, waiting tables, and going about their quotidian lives suggests potential for more outrageousness than anything the makers of this PG-rated comedy put forth.
Still, the premise does yield sight gags and outright laughs with characters like the Pixie Dusters, a biker gang of pissy sprites and fairies, and Corey the Manticore, who remembers when this fantastical world was dangerous and wild. Voiced by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, Corey gets roped into a quest pursued by Ian and his lovable doofus older brother Barley (a suitably animated Chris Pratt). The Lightfoot brothers’ late dad left them a way to rediscover some of their world’s forgotten magic, and possibly even bring him back to life to spend one more glorious day with his two boys.
A tad morbid, and definitely manipulative, dad’s gift could have been designed by a Disney story-bot fed hours of those tear-jerking videos of servicemen and women surprising their frazzled little loved ones at school pep rallies and sweet sixteens. Except Ian and Barley’s dad hasn’t been away fighting a war, he’s been truly gone — just like the magic they’ll need to reunite with him. Heartstrings won’t be plucked lightly but yanked hard like a headless horse to water. The plot also appears headless at times, playing fast and loose with the film’s own logic of time and space.
Fortunately, director and co-writer Dan Scanlon spins the siblings’ quest into a rollicking, chase-filled adventure, buoyed by a zippy score by brothers Jeff and Mychael Danna. The animators don’t produce mind-blowing visuals, but the physical dimensions of these mythological creatures and their quasi-suburban realm register strongly, as in a suspenseful sequence teetering over the vertiginous heights of a bottomless pit. It’s up to Ian and whatever magic he can muster to cross that pit and a series of perilous obstacles. The quest might also have been designed by a story-bot, but one well-acquainted with video games and the original level-up thrill of heroic odysseys.
Not so well-versed in adventure lore, Ian has a lot of learning to do in order to tick off the boxes on his aforementioned list of self-improvement goals. He could use some improvement, because he’s not the most compelling hero, or even the more compelling Lightfoot. Holland lays on the aw-shucks wholesomeness as thick as Aunt Bee’s pancake batter, leaving Ian a whip-smart teen with zero edge and limited charm.
Time and time again, Pratt’s supporting bro Barley comes to the rescue of Ian and the movie, with his good vibes, ’70s party van, and expert knowledge of the historically based role-playing game that guides the siblings’ pursuit. Lending quest-obsessed Barley a natural, goofball joie de vivre, somebody’s favorite Chris injects much-needed enthusiasm to the enterprise, and helps keep the going light when this resurrection story passes through gloomy territory. As the fearsomely drawn but sweet-natured manticore, Spencer likewise applies a hearty, spirited tone that fits the Pixar mold of poignant action and zany humor. As Ian and Barley’s loving mom Laurel, Julia Louis-Dreyfus isn’t given much opportunity to be zany, or notably funny, unless P90X jokes are still a thing.
However, Laurel does get to jump in and swing a sword when the need arises. And even more notably, Lena Waithe portrays a casually gay cop, Officer Spector, who mentions a girlfriend then continues to play a role in the story. So it’s nice to see that Disney has embraced the inclusion of LGBTQ folks in their fantasies of elves, trolls, cyclopes, and things. Let’s wish them onward to including a queer character as the hero of a human quest.
Onward is rated PG, and opens in theaters everywhere on Friday, March 6. Visitwww.fandango.com.
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André Hereford covers arts and entertainment for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.
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