Updated: Mar 6, 2020
I am a big fan of Pixar Animation.
From the very beginning I was impressed with the fact that they had a winning formula that would ensure continued success. They understood that great movies require great scripts and great stories.
Sure, they were on the cutting edge of computer animation and understood the importance of technical excellence, but what made them successful and fueled their continued success was the writing.
In case anyone needs a reminder, their unbroken string of box office hits includes Toy Story, The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc., Cars, Finding Nemo, Wall-E and A Bug’s Life, just to mention a few.
This kind of track record is pretty rare in the movie industry, when studios are often hard pressed to make one worthy sequel or a short string of even moderate successes.
It’s tough to make the magic happen time and time again. But that’s exactly what Pixar manages to do, and I have nothing but respect for them.
As it turns out, their latest animated feature, Onward, is about magic. It’s about a fantasy world in which magic once ruled before falling victim to technology and change.
It’s a sad state of affairs for surviving members of an elf community still living in their mushroom-shaped little houses in an otherwise modern world. Sadder still for a couple of teenage elf brothers who at an early age lost their beloved father to a terminal illness.
I know, the loss of a parent is a traumatizing staple of many Disney animated features. Just ask Bambi, Dumbo, or Simba, right? But in the case of Onward, we are spared having to watch the shattering moment of loss because it has already happened by the time the story begns. Still, we feel the pain on the part of the two brothers and their strong, single elf mom.
What kickstarts the plot is a magical opportunity to bring dad back again albeit for the span of one, single day. Time enough to reconnect, embrace and say all the things that were left unsaid.
I was reminded of this plot element in the Spielberg movie A.I. in which an alien race is able to resurrect a long dead mother figure out of sympathy for a lonely robot boy who longs to see her again. It was poignant and powerful. One of those cinematic moments that you never stop thinking about.
Onward plays the scene with a much lighter touch. It involves a magic staff and stone in the hands of a couple of novices who don’t know quite how to use it.
We’ve seen what happens in Disney movies when the apprentices of sorcerers attempt to invoke magical powers that they can’t understand or control.
In this case, the spell turns out to be only partially successful, rematerializing dad only from the waist down. Just a pair of legs and feet. In order to completely bring him back, the brothers must embark in a dangerous mission to find one remaining magical stone before time runs out.
So, off they go to make things right, dragging dad along for the ride.
In order to disguise his bizarre condition, the boys create a floppy make-shift torso and head that makes dad look like the star of the old movie A Weekend at Bernie’s in which a dead guy is dragged around by a couple of friends throughout the film, a hilarious running (stumbling?) gag.
It works here every bit as well for some non-stop slapstick laughs.
Onward borrows from some other movies as well. I saw references to Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings and arguably The Blob.
It never felt like plagiarism as much as some affectionate nods to movies we’ve all seen and loved over the years. The homage is never overdone here.
As mentioned earlier, Pixar manages to do just about everything right and that includes the casting of voice talent. In this case it involves the contributions of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer and Tracy Ulman.
Collectively, they breathe life into the crazy cast of characters.
Add to that the stellar visual elements (I am always amazed how Pixar manages to nudge the bar up in each of their successive releases) and great sound effects and music, and you have another shining example of why Pixar has garnered so much attention and respect over the years.
In the end, Onward is that rare movie that manages to entertain just about everyone, young and old alike.
Along the way it spins a yarn that is delightfully entertaining with fun surprises, plot twists and an ending that you might not see coming. It’s one that delivers a sweet message that is both touching and emotional.
It’s a fun ride, but it’s more than just fun.
Movies like this, at their best, are a metaphor for life itself. In the case of Onward, it’s all about two brothers on something of a magical mystery tour who learn much about themselves and each other.
In the end, what they learn in the process enables all the characters in the story to move onward.