Sibling bonds rank as some of the strongest human relationships. These connections serve as the basis for many movies, perhaps more than sibling rivalry. In animation, Disney has given us some of the best examples with sisters in Frozen and Frozen II. The most recent Pixar release now highlights brothers on an adventure as much fraught with danger as anything that Anna and Elsa tackled. Onward floors it as two brothers take on a valiant quest to reunite loved ones using long-dormant magic.
Veteran Pixar talent Dan Scanlon had his hands in a lot of recent projects like Coco, Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4. He last directed Monsters University, and comparing the two, I appreciate the abundance of details in the animation and consider this film an improvement. Scanlon and writers Keith Bunin and Jason Headley had an uphill challenge to both create a new world and tell a compelling story. Elf brothers Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) live with their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in New Mushroomton, a town that once embraced magic before modern technology took over. Ian turns 16, and Laurel gives him and Barley a package left behind by the brothers’ deceased father. With instructions and a magical gem, a staff will resurrect their father for one day. Unfortunately, the spell backfires, only half of their father returns and Ian and Barley have to find another gem to complete the process. Barley loves role-playing games (RPGs), so he frames their mission like one of his quests. Along the way, they contend with Laurel’s centaur boyfriend Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez) and seek assistance from manticore Corey (Octavia Spencer).
Holland and Pratt previously worked together in Marvel films from the other arm of Disney, namely Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. Most recently, Holland also voiced an inventor/scientist in Spies in Disguise. Together, it’s clear that they have great camaraderie off the set because they bring that fun to their performances. Holland plays nerdy, while Pratt exudes the bombast and recklessness of Barley. Louis-Dreyfus once played a character in Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, so it’s full circuit to appear again, this time in the mother role who still manages to have her own adventure with Corey. Spencer has an instantly recognizable velvety voice, and there’s great fun in her roar and beast mode. Rodriguez both made me laugh and maybe want to share a beer with him in The Last Man on Earth, an underrated and canceled TV comedy, and Colt has those qualities and more. The animators even gave Colt a moustache like Rodriguez.
Probably for adults more than children, animated films better have humor mixed with the drama or emotion. Onward doesn’t skimp in that department. If anything, the touching moments generate even more emotion because of the shift in focus at that time. When creating a fantasy world that mirrors our own, those connections elicit the chuckles. From “Burger Shire” to Barley’s trusty steed called Guinevere (a big ’70-style van), there are plenty of touchstones that let you find your way in this universe. I enjoyed even more where the movie flips things. Bottom feeder unicorns hiss and bite as essentially a cross between rats and pigeons. The sprite biker gang the Pixie Dusters flies around like gnats and causes trouble if you can stop laughing at them long enough. Where’s a fly swatter when you need one? The best gag of all might fly over most kids’ heads like one of those nasty sprites. Ian and Barley take their half-father with them everywhere and even dress him up so that he looks like he’s all there. I couldn’t stop thinking of Weekend at Bernie’s, yet that’s not a bad thing because the filmmakers make the most of this visual in-joke.
Whereas Monsters University perhaps overdid it with the colors and busy backgrounds, Scanlon and his animators perfect the mix of sight gags, color and gorgeous art in the graphics. Barley loves his Quests for Yore RPG, and there will soon be a real version of his favorite game for you to play. As the plot progresses, the brothers almost jump into a real-world (for them) RPG as they explore caves and challenge beasts, all of which are represented here like in the best fantasy films. With only the lower part of the father resurrected, the filmmakers came up with a great way for the family members to communicate. The pet dragon Blazey doesn’t have as many scenes as I would have liked, so kids won’t be able to latch onto him, either. Barley’s jean jacket tops my list of favorite visuals. Essential to his character, his love of rock music includes many patches of his favorite bands, all of which could pass as real-world heavy metal bands and at least one of which (Hades) actually existed.
When I first saw the Onward teaser trailer, I was not interested at all. That trailer told me nothing about the story and just packed in a bunch of characters in a magical world. The second trailer and movie itself focused correctly on the brothers and their tagalong father. Here’s another neat fact. Brothers Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna provide the music, jaunty and fun most of the time and serious when it needs to be. The film takes too long to get going, but it grabs your heartstrings and pulls you along like the brothers’ dad from that point forward. The title comes from the letter “O” (for “Onward”) that Barley puts on his dashboard’s gear indicator for perhaps guidance and inspiration. Onward revisits the common missing parent theme from animated films and inserts it into an adventure with enough pieces that moviegoers can assemble another solid Pixar experience.