For their latest production, Pixar Animation Studios turns to the world of “Dungeons & Dragons” to inspire screen adventure. It’s not a true homage to the classic role-playing game, but there’s enough of an influence to give “Onward” a charmingly nerdy vibe to go with the company’s formula of family and heart. Director Dan Scanlon (“Monsters University”) gets a little sneaky with his sentimentality, and that’s one of the many charms found in the feature, which has a way of being predictable, reliable Pixar entertainment before it makes a noticeable effort to do some things a little differently when it comes to character and message. There’s a rich animated realm to explore in “Onward,” which plays mirthfully with fantasy, delivering terrific character designs and broad voice work to bring an odd adventure to life.
The land of New Mushroomton was once alive with magic, but convenience has gradually removed the need for wonder around town. Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) is a painfully shy elf welcoming his 16th birthday with his mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), an earnest guy hoping to give his sibling a proper celebration. The boys lost their father, Wilden, a long time ago, but Laurel has a special gift for the duo, revealing a magical staff that her late husband prepared for his sons.
The staff has a Phoenix Gem attached, with instructions to use a spell that permits Wilden to return to life for a single day. Unfortunately, Ian, the magically inclined one, doesn’t have much practice with power, only able to conjure the lower half of Wilden’s body. Faced with one day to make things right, Ian and Barley take off on a quest to navigate the fantasy world and find a new gem, facing all sorts of threats on their mission to reconnect with their father.
After a break to make billions of dollars with the sequels “Incredibles 2” and “Toy Story 4,” Pixar is back to original filmmaking with “Onward,” though the screenplay takes enormous inspiration from gaming history, going the nostalgic route as the production generates its own universe of fantasy characters and landscapes. Of course, such magic isn’t used anymore in New Mushroomton, with those capable of conjuring and battling left to deal with a new future of technological ease, which removes the need for uniqueness, finding such ancient exploits only used in Barley’s favorite game, “Quests of Yore,” which he treats as his own reality, dreaming of quests and enemies.
Ian isn’t as enthusiastic, dealing with maturity on his birthday, staying grounded with fears and thoughts of his father, wishing his old man was still around to see what he’s become. Such reflection is possible in “Onward,” as Ian and Barley are handed a staff and instructions on how to use it, ending up with half a dad they communicate through toe-taps, while they embark on a mission to retrieve a new Phoenix Gem, offered only 24 hours to pull off an impossible task.
Dealing with the death of a loved one and the problems of adjustment isn’t fresh ground for Pixar (or Disney), but Scanlon and co-writers Jason Headley and Keith Bunin try to add some enthusiasm to the adventure, with Barley an excitable guy eager to turn “Quests of Yore” into a reality, offering Ian a ride in his dumpy van, Guinevere, with the first stop on the crusade being Corey (Octavia Spencer), a once mighty manticore who’s now an overworked manager at a fantasy-themed restaurant.
“Onward” splits into a few directions after this meeting, with Laurel setting out to protect her boys after learning of their mangled magic, teaming with Corey as she gets back in touch with her former fierceness. The parallel subplots have their highlights, including run-ins with tough biker fairies, and bonding time with Wilden’s lower half inspires an unusual dance party with his sons. Throughout the picture, Ian works on his staff skills, offered tips from Barley, who understands what magic is available, requiring his brother’s focus when the pair runs into trouble as they hunt for the gem.
“Onward” isn’t fresh, missing a full push of adventure to deal with domestic business, but Scanlon scores with minor beats and observances in the picture. There’s Colt (Mel Rodriguez), a centaur cop who’s also Laurel’s boyfriend. Another movie would turn him into a problem, but Scanlon keeps him kind and concerned, eager to help his love on her hunt to find her sons.
There’s also a wonderful overview of brotherhood, with Barley an attentive sibling who genuinely wants to the best for Ian, but the little brother has spent his life focusing elsewhere. The screenplay nails such realization for Ian, making the film more than just a quest to resurrect Wilden. There’s assorted weirdness, slapstick, and moments of emotion, and while “Onward” doesn’t reach a level of craziness it initially hints at, Scanlon is attentive to his characters and remains creative with his world-building, with Pixar’s production polish delivering a substantial, colorful world to go with all the excitedly performed family business.
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Watch Onward (2020) Online
Watch Onward (2020) Online
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