Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
On the surface, there’s not a lot that seems particularly enticing about ONWARD. Yet because of the Pixar name, we have blind faith regardless. The concept is a zany one: After two blue elf brothers conjure the bottom half of their deceased dad in a spell gone awry, they’re forced to go on a quest to obtain a magical stone that will fully restore him for one day. However, once director Dan Scanlon and company delve deeper into the premise, they find genuine profundity.
This percolating potion of humor and heart casts a magical spell, garnering a well-earned emotional pull fueled by a highly resonant wish-fulfillment fantasy. The filmmakers have carefully crafted a heartrending love letter to the magic of rediscovery and the latent powers our legacies hold. It’s essentially Pixar’s ABOUT TIME if Richard Curtis had set his film in an animated magical realm populated with mythical creatures. Get ready to ugly cry – especially those who’ve lost someone near and dear.
The fantasy world of the story was once brimming with magic and optimism until convenience took over and technology replaced sorcery. Fast forward to “modern times,” where teen elf Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) is struggling with a lack of confidence and looking for a guiding light. Since his dad passed away many years prior, Ian’s caring single mother Laurel (voiced by Julia Louis Dreyfus) shoulders the responsibility. Still, even she can only say or do so much. And his older brother Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt) isn’t much help either as he’s an oafish slacker without much direction in his own life. It would seem Ian is trapped in hopeless adolescence.
On Ian’s 16th birthday, he receives a wizard staff as a gift from his long-deceased father with instructions on how to bring him back to life for a day. Though Barley sputters get it to work, Ian’s got the gift to release the wooden rod’s power. Still, the unwitting mage’s latent skills only take the spell so far – waist high, to be precise – conjuring their pops’ khaki-clad legs and brown loafer-sporting feet. This leads the two and a half men on a once-in-a-lifetime journey, a day-long road trip in Barley’s busted Dodge van, to unearth another crystal to properly finish the incantation.
Scanlon, Jason Headley and Keith Bunin’s screenplay functions at its best when it’s leaning into sincerity over silliness. While sequences that showcase the brothers bonding over sticky situations are laced with sweet undertones (like their confrontation with a bitchy biker fairy gang at a rest stop, or getting cornered by the authorities), they are slanted a bit more towards the comedic aspects. Occasionally, the filmmakers slightly undercut a poignant moment when a transitional breather could be an asset. Barley’s heartfelt confession about an upsetting memory involving his illness-stricken dad is an unexpected, extremely cathartic gut-punch – one that’s undeniable for those who’ve gone through similar situations. That vulnerability plays pitch-perfectly in Pratt’s vocal intonations. Yet, the authentic earnestness of the scene quickly gives way to the absurdity of the enlarged cheese puff they’re floating on instead of giving the emotion a second to gracefully land. That said, dealing with devastating personal loss is like that – sometimes, the only thing to pull one out of all-encompassing sadness is the absurd, awkward nature of when and where it chooses to strike. So there’s a very real, palpable validity to this scene, even set in an unreal environment.
In addition to the filmmakers’ forward-thinking approach to dealing with grief, they approach traditional character archetypes with just as much innovation. It’s wildly refreshing that Laurel isn’t relegated to staying at home, worrying and waiting by the phone. She’s not boxed into the stereotypical “wife” or “mom” role. She takes charge, tailing her boys while also learning to rediscover her inner warrior. Qualities like Barley’s encyclopedic knowledge of quests and spells, which would usually marginalize him as an outcast, are viewed as strengths in terms of the narrative context. Third stringers like Manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer), a bat-winged bear beast with a scorpion tail working through an identity crisis, and Officer Colt Bronco (voiced by Mel Rodriguez), Laurel’s centaur boyfriend attempting to forge a relationship with her boys, also augment thematic ties.
Perhaps the best thing that Scanlon’s film does is that it gives audiences of all ages (but especially young kids) the tools to work through sorrow in a safe space. It becomes the message in a bottle we desire to hear from a lost loved one: that all of us have the potential to unlock a little bit of magic of our own.
Grade: 4 out of 5
ONWARD opens on March 6.