We could all use a little more magic in our lives. We could especially use one more magical day with a person missing from our lives. But is being bold the key to unlocking the magic?
In Disney/Pixar’s new film "Onward," a world full of magical creatures has evolved into a humdrum suburban life of school, work and responsibilities. Ian Lightfoot, a blue, elf-eared creature voiced by Tom Holland, is a meek and mild-mannered teen going through the motions of life -- floundering while making friends, struggling through driver's ed and just trying to eat a bowl of cereal in peace -- when a revelation on his 16th birthday shoves him into a magical quest.
Ian’s father, who passed away before he was born, has bequeathed a wizard’s staff to him and his older brother, an Andy Dwyer-esque screw-up named Barley, and we don't just say that because he's fittingly voiced by Chris Pratt. They realize Dad was a wizard all along and can come back for one day if they perform a spell. Ian, who also seems gifted in wizardry, halfway succeeds, and he and Barley are left with a pair of khaki-clad legs they must drag around “Weekend at Bernie’s”-style. The two embark on a quest to find a magical stone to finish the spell, all before tomorrow’s sun sets and the door closes on a reunion with Dad.
Meanwhile, their mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is on a mission to find her missing sons and teams up with manticore and restaurant owner Corey (Octavia Spencer), who has forgotten how powerful she once was. Laurel’s arc isn’t as clearly defined, unless it’s to show the length moms will go to protect their kids (she already seems to know she’s fierce). Plus, it gives Louis-Dreyfus valuable screen time for which I was grateful, because seriously, I could listen to her talk for hours.
Corey, though, gets to flex her hero muscles, something she hasn’t done while throwing safe, boring birthday parties at her restaurant. You can feel her story coming from a mile away, but I’ll give this kids' movie a pass for lack of subtlety.
The boys press ahead, with Ian setting out to be bolder, like his father, taking the literal leap and leadership role while repairing a somewhat fractured relationship with his brother, who just wants to be taken seriously.
Holland and Pratt both come off as likable with big hearts, and the two sometimes-Avengers (Holland is Spider-Man and Pratt is Star Lord, if you recall) play well off of each other, sharing more screen time than they have in Marvel's films.
As the first two-thirds of the film just seems to be mostly adventurous fun, I was disappointed that there were no big emotional moments like in any of the "Toy Story" movies or "Inside Out." Then it happened. The film culminates with a one-two punch of emotion reminiscent of "Field of Dreams" that would make a grown man cry. Suddenly, the story shifts from what it means to be magical to what it means to be human and vulnerable in an ordinary world.
Kudos to a Disney film that gets the dead parent trope to work for its money and not just be used as a plot device to propel the main characters into motion. It actually makes sense here, and you feel the emotional heft and the theme of growing up under a cloud of grief the filmmakers are trying to convey.
There were a few missed opportunities in the film, though. The first five minutes serve you a high-level overview of this magical world with biker pixies and mermaids lounging in kiddie pools on the front lawn, but we never really get to open up this world and explore. The film becomes very insular, focusing on Ian, Barley, Laurel and Corey, and there is so much we never get to see. It would be a great spin-off TV show to just catch up with the rest of this magical town. At the least, much more on the trash-eating unicorns, nasty creatures they are, is necessary.
If "Onward" is to become a Disney classic or destined to be the next "The Good Dinosaur" remains to be seen (frankly, it deserves a spot in the former category), but it would make an amazing ride in the theme park someday. We can see it now -- a river rapid ride on a giant Cheeto, culminating with an escape from a gelatinous green cube. If that doesn’t happen, can we at least get a photo op with the trash unicorns?
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