Disney/Pixar’s biggest enemy is itself. Because of the studio’s track record, which spans from Toy Story to Coco, worthy films like Onward can seem disappointing in comparison to the studio’s greatest hits. But there’s still plenty to love in the animation studio’s latest and, if you open yourself to its peculiar charms, enough magical moments to make the cliches disappear.
The first scene sets the tone. As the opening narration begins, we see wizards casting spells in green pastures. “Once upon a time the world was filled with wonder,” says the voice over. Then technology was invented and magic became a thing of the past. Sound familiar? Pixar specializes in grounding storybook worlds in real-world problems, and this one does so with a sprinkling of pixie dust and dashes of realism.
Now the world is a suburban wasteland. Filled with homes, street lights and parents worried about rent; the place looks like a neorealist version of Dungeons and Dragons. So it’s fitting that our hero isn’t a warrior, but an everyday elf. With everyday problems like learning to drive on his plate, Ian (Tom Holland) doesn’t seem ready for a cross-country adventure. He doesn’t even seem ready to drive. But on his 16th birthday mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gifts him dad’s old wizard staff, which has the power to bring paps back to life for 24 hours, and before you can say “abracadabra,” Ian conjures up the bottom half of his father’s body, leaving the other half to be found in a far away land.
And so Ian does embark on a cross-country adventure. With his older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), driving the three around in his van, there’s no telling where they might end up. A gas station filled with biker gang fairies? Sure. A mystical tavern turned family restaurant? Why not? This scene is, after all, a clever self-jab by Disney for what some see as selling out magical ideas for commercialized sequels.
The cleverest conceit, however, is the family dynamics. Between Ian and Barley, there’s a love-hate relationship that any sibling can relate to. Because director Dan Scanlon pulls from his own experience as a younger brother who lost his father at an early age, the intensity and honesty here transcends animation. The images on screen might not be real, but the emotions feel genuine.
There’s plenty of fun to be had, too. When the boys stuff a sweatshirt and glasses on dad’s sentient legs, he morphs into the animated version of Weekend at Bernie’s. This makes for some goofy sight gags, as well as the embodiment of Barley’s motto (“You got to work with what you got!”), which becomes the movie’s motto. Since Onward doesn’t have the greatest special effects, it has to work with what it’s got to cast a spell.
What it’s got is the complex and real brotherly love of Ian and Barley. Giving each other words of encouragement, the two set aside their differences to conquer their quest. By using his father’s staff, Ian turns cheese puffs into river rafts and empty canyons into invisible bridges. One memorable scene sees Ian turn Barley into the size of an action figure.
It would have been nice to see Ian use the staff even more often, but the film has its fair share of magic tricks. The biggest is how Pixar can turn modest plots into astounding adventures. How can a group of toys hanging out be entertaining? A rat baking pasta riveting? A couple of bros on the open road captivating? The simplest answer is the humanity of its characters. Ian and Barley’s road trip mirrors many of our own relationship journeys. Many of us spend our whole lives looking for closure that never comes. Thankfully, with luck, whatever god we believe in or little magic, a lot of us do find ourselves.