Pixar’s Onward is an earnest quest that’s short on enchantment
Do you believe in magic? That’s pretty much Pixar’s brand, though it’s never felt quite as literal, or as effortful, as it does in Onward — an elfin-eared fantasy quest whose intermittent charms never fully land on real enchantment.
Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland, re-upping his American accent) could be the hero in a John Hughes movie: shy, gawky, still waiting for his chance to bloom. Except he has ears like a fennec fox and skin tinged a light, Smurf-y blue; like his kindhearted mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and lumbering burnout of a brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), he’s an elf, albeit one whose world has lost some pixie dust over the years.
So when Laurel gifts him with his late father’s wizard staff on his 16th birthday, Ian doesn’t have much hope that its powers are still intact. Until he manages to conjure half his dad in a visitation spell — the bottom half. For the rest, he and the feckless Barley will need to fetch a special stone.
Director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) finds some fun riffs, like a neighing horse cop — he’s literally man up front, hoof-and-tail party in the back — and a roving pack of fairies who’ve forgotten how to use their wings, and now ride around on Harleys like hell’s tiniest, angriest angels. (Octavia Spencer is winning too as the Manticore, a winged scorpion-lion hybrid fallen on hard times.)
She and Louis-Dreyfus have the workings of their own small buddy road comedy when they get together to shadow the boys on their journey, though nothing much comes from those initial moments. So the burden of character development mostly falls on Holland’s earnest Everyteen and Pratt’s bumbling but well-intentioned Barley — who with his basement pallor, sleeveless denim, and unbridled enthusiasms could be Wayne and Garth’s cerulean brother. (This being a strictly PG operation, the roiling clouds of weed smoke from his tricked-out van are invisible, but implied).
Together they’re clearly a mismatched team — and a combative one too, in the way that only fundamentally different siblings can be — though we know harmony is on the horizon; the life lessons when they come are utterly foreseeable, but sweetly so. Pratt particularly works hard to bring specific life to his stoner-goofball persona, vibrating at a frequency that might best be described as Half-Decaffeinated Jack Black.
Still, even at a relatively brief hour and 37 minutes, the familiar contours of Scanlon’s story line struggle to conjure the wonder that Pixar’s most transcendent movies do; instead of truly new, it’s mostly old things borrowed, and tinted blue.