GREG'S GRADE: B
"Onward" is set in a fantasy world where magic once ruled but has been forgotten in favor of the convenience of modern technology. There's an analogy in there, as the movie, as enjoyable as it can be, falls short of the magic Pixar has conjured in its finest offerings.
It's hardly criticism, though, to fault a film for failing to reach the heights of "WALL-E" or "The Incredibles." So let's just call "Onward" a victim of Pixar's success.
Directed Dan Scanlon ("Monsters University"), who wrote the screenplay with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, "Onward" is the story of two elf brothers — shy, nervous Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) and boisterous older bro Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt). Plagued by insecurity and social anxiety, Ian can't bring himself to invite anyone to his 16th birthday party. Barley, on the other hand, seems to lack any self-awareness. Clad in a denim battle vest, he drives an old van, its sides emblazoned with a mural of a pegasus. He's obsessed with a "Dungeons & Dragons"-like role-playing game, only in this world it's not fantasy but based on actual history — or, at least, that's what he loudly insists.
Now that Ian is 16, their mother (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) passes to them a gift from their father, who died before Ian was born. It's a wizard staff, much to Barley's delight, along with instructions for a spell to bring dad back for exactly 24 hours. It's a chance for Ian to meet the father he never knew and for Barley to gain much-needed closure. But they botch the spell, bringing back only a portion of their old man and destroying the gem that powers the staff in the process, and must set off an old-fashioned quest to find another gem before time runs out.
Holland and Pratt, both stars from the (Disney-owned) Marvel Cinematic Universe, play their characters exactly how you would expect. What they lack in creativity, they make up for with chemistry. The stars reportedly recorded some of their dialogue together and even did some ad-libbing, a rarity for an animated film and an astute choice given their obvious rapport. The brothers' relationship forms the heart of the movie and likely will elicit more than a few tears. Buy hey, if you been through the first 10 minutes of "Up," you can take anything "Onward" throws at you.
What it won't offer is much creativity in the actual storytelling. Scanlon was inspired by his own experiences following his father's death when he and his brother were young, but that doesn't cover for the fact that the dead parent trope is one Disney has fallen back on again and again over the years.
The world-building is where the movie shines the brightest. Elves, goblins, trolls, fairies and manticores are all here, along with cars, skyscrapers, freeways and smartphones. The amalgamation creates fertile ground for jokes and visual gags, and "Onward" is at its best when it simply exists among them.
Rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements. 102 minutes.
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