Onward is a refreshingly original tale from Disney and Pixar, but it’s comprised of familiar fantasy elements. Once a land where centaurs galloped and mermaids splashed, the suburban enclave of New Mushroomton has been transformed via technology into an eerily familiar landscape of convenience. After all, why should a fairy fly when an airplane can do it for them?
And so the movie offers a combination of Dungeons & Dragons and The Simpsons, skewering the ways we’ve allowed tech to dull our capacity for adventure. As such, life is fairly dreary for teen elf Ian (voiced by Tom Holland), who’s struggling with friends and learning how to drive. On his birthday, however, Ian is bequeathed a magical staff from his late father. Ian’s older brother Barley (Chris Pratt)—a historian of the olden days and practitioner of a role-playing game based upon legends from that time—digs up a spell that will bring their father back for 24 fours. But because Ian is new at this, the magic falters after only conjuring him from the waist down. What follows is a slap-sticky adventure in which the brothers embark on a quest (dragging their father’s legs along, Weekend at Bernie-style) to find a way to complete the spell.
A smart supporting cast fills out the story, especially Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the boys’ indomitable mom and Octavia Spencer as The Manticore, a winged, poisonous lion who now channels her ferocity into running a themed restaurant based on her previous exploits. (“I’m living a lie! What have I become?” she roars.) The screenplay, by Keith Bunin, Jason Headley, and director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), nicely pairs these two up for the second half of the film. There’s also strong chemistry between Holland and Pratt, which pays off when the movie makes a turn near the end to be an ode to sibling harmony.
Thankfully, Onward treads lightly when it comes to the boys’ father. It’s touching when the legs gently tap each of the boys to communicate, but mostly the conceit is used for comic effect. (Bumbling about, the torso-less figure is something like Charlie Chaplin with his head cut off.) The movie builds to an action climax that balances an ingeniously designed dragon and a moving, father-son moment that’s cleverly underplayed. Onward may not rank among Pixar’s best, but the studio’s ability to gently tweak heartstrings, without overdoing it, remains intact.