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"ONWARD"
(2020) (voices of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Computer-Animated Fantasy/Adventure: Having used magic to bring back only the lower half of their late father, two elf brothers set off on a quest to retrieve the rest of him, but only have twenty-four hours to do so before he disappears forever.
PLOT:

In a fantastical world where magic once existed but has since been replaced by modern technological conveniences enjoyed by a variety of mythical beings, Ian Lightfoot (voice of TOM HOLLAND) is an elf who's just turned sixteen, but has yet to find his place in the grand scheme of things. Part of his wallflower nature stems from the fact that he never met his dad -- who died before he was born -- and thus only has a brief tape recording of him to use as a basis for made-up conversations. His slightly older brother, Barley (voice of CHRIS PRATT), isn't lacking in confidence, but isn't motivated outside of fantasy games and such.

Things change, however, when their mom, Laurel (voice of JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS) -- who's now dating centaur cop Colt Bronco (voice of MEL RODRIGUEZ) -- gives her boys a gift left for them by their dad now that they've reached a certain age. And it's a magic staff powered by a phoenix gem at the end. Barley can't get it work, but Ian does, hoping a certain magic spell will bring their father back to life. It does, sort of, but the spell is interrupted, resulting in just their dad's lower half -- hips down -- showing up.

Realizing they only have twenty-four hours before the spell stops working, the brothers set off on a quest to find the legendary half-lion, half-scorpion Manticore (voice of OCTAVIA SPENCER) -- who's now resigned to working under the name of Corey in a mythical themed family restaurant -- who might be able to tell them where to find another phoenix gem to bring back the rest of their father before time runs out.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10

A philosophical game that I first played way back in college in the 1980s was "If you could meet any person, living or dead, who would that be?" I can't recall what my initial answer was, and I'm fairly certain it's changed decade after decade since then. I can say, though, that more than once it would have been to meet my parents long before I was born or they ever met -- just to see what they were like when life was still in front of them, unburdened by kids, work or day-to-day demands of just getting by.

That's been the basis for many sci-fi and fantasy tales, although such meetings are often more incidental than purposeful, such as occurred in "Field of Dreams" or "Back to the Future." In Pixar's latest film, though, that very intent is what drives the plot and -- giving the offering an extra layer of heart and sincerity -- stems from writer/director Dan Scanlon's childhood. When he was just a one-year-old (and his brother was three), his father passed away, leaving him with no memories of his dad. When he was a teenager, a relative gave him a brief audio recording of his father which I'm guessing likely left him wanting more.

Which brings us around to "Onward," Pixar's twenty-second film where a teenage elf, Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland), only has a brief audio recording of his dad (who died before he was born) that he uses to carry on made-up conversations with him. His slightly older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), only has a handful of actual memories of their father.

That's resulted in the siblings having grown up quite differently. While Barley is gregarious if not particularly motivated beyond mythical fantasy games and his beat-up old van, Ian is a socially awkward and unsure of himself wallflower who can't even go through with asking a few classmates over to his house for his sixteenth birthday party throw by his mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus).

That turns out to be okay, however, as Laurel brings out a gift her late husband wanted her to give to their boys once they reached a certain age. And that's a wizard's staff from back when their world was filled with magic. While their suburban town of New Mushroomton is still teaming with a menageries of fantastical creatures -- such as Cyclopes, pixie motorcycle gangs and Laurel's centaur cop boyfriend (Mel Rodriguez) -- that magic has been replaced by modern technological achievements, appliances and gadgets.

Nonetheless, Barley is all-in on using the wizard's staff and its phoenix stone to conjure up some magic, but it doesn't react to him. It does for Ian, however, and it's not long before he's trying to use a spell to bring back their father. It works, but only half-way, resulting in just the lower half of their dad showing up.

With the phoenix stone that powered the staff now broken, they must find a new one to finish the spell and thus set off on a quest to do so (with their half-father given a faux upper-half to make him appear complete, albeit in a "Weekend at Bernie's" sort of floppy way). Oh, and they only have twenty-four hours to do so before said magic wears off and dear old dad disappears once more into the afterworld.

I have to admit that the result -- while definitely better than the trailer makes it out to be -- is what many would consider "Pixar light." It's not disappointing like the "Cars" flicks were (at least to me), but it's definitely not among the studio's best offerings, mainly because a lot of the material feels like things we've seen before. That said, the film -- co-written by Jason Headley and Keith Bunin -- is still miles ahead of much of the dreck released year-in and year-out, with enough comedy, action and tear-inducing heart and soul to warm even the hardest cynic.

Will it go down as one of Pixar's classics? Probably not. But as an entertaining, enjoyable and emotionally affecting offering, it definitely works in the moment and delivers its magic on all fronts. "Onward" rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed February 19, 2020 / Posted March 6, 2020


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