With its array of buffoonish characters, silly situations and mildly perilous action scenes, “Onward” is most assuredly kid-friendly.
It’s about two teenage elf brothers seeking to recapture magic, but Pixar’s 22nd feature “Onward” is far from enchanting. It starts off well, establishing a colorful world populated by trolls and pointy-eared, blue-hued elves residing in mushroom-shaped homes. A voiceover recalls a simpler time ruled by fire, light and magic in setting the course for an adventure promising wonder and whimsy … until the script bumps smack into the de riguer trappings of lesser animated films.
This being a Disney/Pixar product, the story, naturally, is built around a dead parent. How many movies does that make now? “Onward” also dabbles in familiar themes of self-confidence and brotherly love, earnest endeavors, no doubt, so it’s hard to fault. Still, “Onward” lacks the emotional heft that enabled classics like “Up,” “Toy Story,” and “WALL-E” to transcend the genre.
At first, you might not notice the pedestrian nature of the story. But as the movie grinds on, adults may catch their minds wandering. Pint-sized moviegoers, however, will love every second, particularly if they’ve never seen Pixar flicks before. With its array of buffoonish characters, silly situations and mildly perilous action scenes, “Onward” is most assuredly kid-friendly - and, that’s what it’s all about. Moms and dads couldn’t ask for more wholesome role models than brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot, voiced by Tom Holland (“Spider-Man”) and Chris Pratt (“Guardians of the Galaxy”), respectively.
At a newly minted 16, Ian is cute and shy, sporting a blue mop of Timothee Chalamet-like hair. He wants to be more confident and outgoing. Fourth on his teen to-list is: “Invite people to party.” On the flip side, big-bro Barley is somewhat doltish, overbearing and obsessed with a Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. Differences abound, but they share a desire to be more like their late father. The script, co-written by director Dan Scanlon (“Monsters University”) and Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, gives the sibs the chance to do just that. On the morning of his 16th birthday, Ian’s mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents him a gift Dad left behind: a one-day resurrection spell to bring their Pops back alive. But the execution goes awry, as only Dad’s legs return from the great beyond. To summon the rest of him, the brothers must find a special gem to reconjure the magic and … well, it’s all kind of moot. Let’s just say the script sends Ian and Barley off on “Weekend at Bernie’s”-style adventure, with Dad’s legs (adorned in sensible khakis and brown loafers) in tow. And, wow, what a performance Scanlon coaxes from a pair of disembodied limbs.
As expected, the mismatched characters bicker and quarrel while learning to work together to complete each task: taking down a Manticore monster (Octavia Spencer); outwitting a Centaur cop (Mel Rodriguez) and his Cyclops partner (Lena Waithe); solving Indiana Jones-style puzzles; and locating an invisible path over a bottomless pit. The ultimate lesson, of course, is that the bros really aren’t all that different. By the time the credits roll, it’s redemption all around, but minus the emotional wallop you’d expect from Pixar.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Chris Pratt, Tom Holland, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Lena Waithe, Ali Wong.
(PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements.)