After two straight sequels, Pixar is back to offering up fresh material for the first time since 2017’s Coco. Onward, a magic-steeped bit of fun set in a world of elves, fairies, and the occasional centaur-stepdad-policeman, may not offer up Pixar’s usual level of instant-classic-ness, but it still manages to be among the studio’s sweeter films to date. And it’s also wholly original—when’s the last time a giant Cheeto, a gelatinous cube, and a sacrificial van all played a role in a feature film?
Writer-director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), who was only a year old when his father passed, drew on that life experience to craft a tale of two brothers—in an age of unicorns and dragons—who uncover a spell that can return their father to life for 24 hours. The younger brother, 16-year-old Ian (Tom Holland), is given his dad’s old wizard’s staff by his mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), but when the spell malfunctions and only the lower half of his dad appears, Ian and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) set out on a quest to find the mystical Phoenix Gem in order to finish the job.
The journey takes them from their hometown of New Mushroomton to the Manticore’s Tavern, down the Path of Peril, and finally to Raven’s Point—all of which instantly become leading contenders for greatest Pixar place name ever. Along the way, the brothers bond and share some laughs as they lead their half-dad (via retractable dog leash) to where X, naturally, marks the spot. It’s a wildly inventive trip that includes car chases, literal leaps of faith, and even the occasional dust-up with a biker gang of rough ’n tumble mini-fairies.
Keeping with Pixar’s fine tradition of outstanding, high-level animation, Onward doesn’t skimp at all when it comes to mind-blowing details and textures throughout. The film is stuffed with so many Disney and Pixar easter eggs, you’ll need a dozen or so viewings to catch them all, from the Pizza Planet truck to Poultry Palace to the required voice cameo by Pixar’s good luck charm John Ratzenberger.
Holland and Pratt, who are of course prior colleagues in the Avengers world, bring all kinds of dynamism and expressiveness to their voice roles—Pratt especially, in what may be Onward’s most memorable character. Barley is a slightly nerdy, gung-ho fan of Quests of Yore, a Dungeons and Dragons-esque RPG, whose rules wind up governing the brothers’ journey. Octavia Spencer also delights as Corey, a glorious manticore-of-old who has resigned herself to a life as the owner of a cheesy themed restaurant.
Of course, the real reason adults agree to lug their kiddos to a Pixar film is for the tug at the heartstrings and perhaps the occasional tear-inducing moment of bittersweet emotion. Onward provides one in spades, wrapping up the film so sweetly that you’ll find yourself protesting to your kids that you’re not crying, they are.
Though not in the rare air of Wall*E or Toy Story 3, Pixar’s latest fits right in line with the studio’s above-average offerings like Brave, Finding Nemo, and Ratatouille, and it’s preceded by an especially cute Simpsons short that sets the tone perfectly for the magic to come.