Rating: Four Stars
“Cars 2,” released in 2011, was a groundbreaking film for two reasons: It made a new generation hate Larry the Cable Guy, and it marked the end of a winning streak for a company that seemed like it was incapable of making a bad movie.
Since then, Pixar’s catalogue has been much more hit or miss than in its early years. For every psychological dive into the world of a little girl (“Inside Out”), there’s been a “Land Before Time” rip-off with drug trips and pterodactyl cults (“The Good Dinosaur”).
So I was a bit nervous going into Pixar’s latest effort, “Onward.” Fortunately, director Dan Scanlon (“Monsters University”) deftly spearheads a rich story that harnesses the company’s ability to make viewers of any age blubber like babies (including this viewer).
“Onward” takes place in medieval suburbia, where centaurs, unicorns and the like have replaced magic with technology. But a young elf named Ian Littlefoot (Tom Holland) discovers he has magical capabilities, and attempts to use them to bring his deceased father back.
It works, but only on his dad’s bottom half. Left with 24 hours until the spell wears off, Ian journeys with his courageous, quest-obsessed brother Barley (Chris Pratt) to get the rest of his father back.
The DnD shenanigans mostly take a backseat to the turbulent relationship between the brothers and their shared grief for their lost parent. Of course, killing family members is Disney and Pixar’s fetish, but through a tight script and some of the best voice acting in a Pixar project, “Onward” is able to take the concept in a new direction.
Twists and turns that will both break and warm hearts remind viewers that, even in the wake of tragedy, it’s important to appreciate those who are still a part of your life. The characters discover that the people who most shape your values, your strengths and your identity can come from unexpected places.
Unfortunately, “Onward” doesn’t quite manage to master both comedy and drama like some of Pixar’s best works. There aren’t many attempts at jokes until the second act, and even then, few of them produce more than chuckles.
Most of the time, the punchline is, “Look at how soft and modern that medieval thing has become,” which gets tiring after a while. And at one point, the filmmakers borrow from the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” playbook by giving a motorcycle gang of pixies obnoxious, high-pitched voices.
But as a drama, “Onward” works wonders. It’s bound to go down as one of Pixar’s most emotionally resonant films, which considering the company’s track record, is saying a lot. Here’s hoping the animators never stop using distinctly inhuman characters to tell distinctly human stories.