‘Onward’ Goes on an Adventure to Find the Magic in Everyday Life
“Onward” is one of those bursts of strange creativity from Disney/Pixar, brushing aside big franchises for something quirky and delightful. It’s as if the animation department gathered together its artists who might be obsessed with “Lord of the Rings,” ‘80s metal music and magic cards, and let them have free reign. At its core is a tale bursting with heart and a surprisingly acute social message. The kids may chortle and cheer, but adults will recognize its deeper statement about the magic being sucked out of our work-obsessed lives.
Welcome to New Mushroomtown, a suburban landscape that long ago used to be a classic fantasy world. But once the inhabitants discovered electricity modernity began and now everyone drives cars, go to college, get careers and pay taxes. Our hero is an elf named Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), who lives with widowed mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and rocker older brother Barley (Chris Pratt). Ian has always regretted that he never got to speak much with his late father, who died when he was still too young. Barley not only shares memories but is obsessed with the town’s previous fantastical history, championing an age of wizards and warriors. On Ian’s 16th birthday Laurel makes a startling revelation. Her late husband may have been an accountant, but he left behind a magical staff with a stone capable of bringing him back for just one day. When Ian tries out the spell with Barley’s help it all goes wrong, leaving only dad’s khaki-clad lower half walking around. Desperate to make the spell work before time runs out, Ian and Barley go on a quest to find another magical stone that can complete the process.
“Onward” doesn’t aspire to be the kind of grandiose animated spectacle of typical Pixar marquee titles like the “Toy Story” movies. This gives it a fresh feistiness and freedom. Part of what has defined the studio’s approach is the way fun storytelling is combined with great significance. Classics like “Wall-E” and “Up” are about the environment and aging, “Onward” may be a simpler affair but no less heartfelt. The opening scenes are an animated take on how “progress” can overtake culture as we see modernism bury a fantasy world, turning it into the Orange County-like New Mushroomtown. The animators have lovingly captured in even the smallest details a combination of fantasy and suburbia. Minotaurs like Laurel’s boyfriend Officer Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez) keep law and order while even the torso-less legs of Ian’s dad are dressed in a khaki, socks and shoe combo you would easily find at any Westlake, CA insurance office. Barley looks like a retread to ‘80s Iron Maiden gear, but he insists on preserving the town’s magical landmarks, has memorized various spells and encourages Ian to not follow the rules. In a sense kids are getting a worthwhile message against conformity, even as they learn about the ways a magic staff can obliterate your room if not used correctly.
As Ian and Barley go on their quest to seek the gem that will bring dad back, the movie becomes a hilarious gallery of wondrous, nearly satirical characters. An old tavern with an important map has been converted into a restaurant run by the once mighty warrior turned stressed manager The Manticore (Octavia Spencer). Having to fix the restaurant’s karaoke machine turns into the last straw that makes her realize her life is being wasted. What follows is a comic but relatable existential crisis complete with fire-breathing. A pack of pixies fly around like a biker gang, even decked in leather jackets and mohawks. Creatures that would be at home in Narnia have been reduced to becoming gas station attendants. The Manticore has to go retrieve her powerful and mythical sword — from a pawn shop.
“Onward” surprisingly lacks any big musical numbers, it would rather have Barley blast a metal tape in the cassette player of his steed, the van Guinevere. Even if it doesn’t reach the heights of the usual Pixar fest, there’s something welcoming about a film that goes back to an enjoyable, simple form of animation that just wants to have fun. The final battle between the forces of light and dark has an impressive surprise as well in the way it resolves its conflict. In the end it becomes a moving story about the genuine love between siblings and how looking to the past can distract us from what’s important now. If a movie about elves can pull that off then it certainly deserves credit. Little moments remind us that there should be more to life than just vapid routines, even Laurel at one point unsheathes a sword and gets back in touch with her warrior elf roots. Barley using the magic staff to make a boat out of a giant cheeto has more life to it than much of what passes for family entertainment these days.
“Onward” packs a good time for young viewers and enough of a social commentary for their older chaperones. With goofy charm it invites us to live a little, put aside the routine and get back in touch with whatever we consider magical in our lives. Sometimes that magic can come from appreciating our loved ones. It also understands how even a beat up old van be a beautiful steed, provided the right music is on deck.
“Onward” opens March 6 in theaters nationwide.