Onward, an ode to the nerdy teenager, is the latest grown-up kids movie from co-writer and director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) and Pixar. The animation giant recently celebrated the nuclear family in Coco, Incredibles 2, and Inside Out. In Onward, the central Lightfoot family is as uniquely shaped as the centaurs that inhabit their fantastical world. By journey’s end, it’s clear that unconventional isn’t lesser. Grab a d20, your favorite cheese-dusted salty snack, and a box of tissues.
Wilden Lightfoot (Kyle Bornheimer), father of goofy Barley (Christ Pratt) and nervous Ian (Tom Holland), dies early in Barley’s life and before Ian is born. On Ian’s 16th birthday, his mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), gives her sons a present from their father. The gift, a magical staff with the power to resurrect Wilden for one day, offers Barley a chance to reunite with his father and Ian a chance to meet his hero for the first time.
Barley, a superfan of Quests of Yore (a second-rate Dungeons & Dragons), fruitlessly wields the staff, unable to conjure even the smallest bout of magic. After the family retires for the night, Ian tries his hand at the spell and resurrects Wilden up to waist before losing concentration and destroying the magic crystal that powered Ian’s wizardry. Barley leads Ian and their father’s legs to Guinevere, his trusty van with a (sick) custom paint job, and the two and a half set off on a quest to find a new magic crystal to power the rest of the spell and bring their dad back to life.
Twenty-five years after Toy Story, Pixar is synonymous with animated quality; nearly every entry in their catalog can bring parents and kids alike to tears. The Disney-owned studio plucks our heartstrings with surgical precision, which has caused recent features to feel like Pixar on autopilot. Onward saves the waterworks for the final act of its epic quest, but Scanlon and co-writers Jason Headley and Keith Bunin’s fairytale story is fully realized with Easter eggs and mystical creatures abound.
Early in Onward, Barley takes Ian to the Manticore’s Tavern, a Chuck E. Cheese-style family restaurant, to find the map that will guide them on their quest. (The setting also fulfills the prophecy that all quests must begin in an inn or tavern.) The restaurant is owned by Corey, a retired adventurer and manticore portrayed with genuine enthusiasm by Octavia Spencer. Secretly seeking a return to glory, Corey teams up Laurel to save the boys. The pair aren’t allowed the development they deserve, bungling the subplot.
Onward doesn’t reach the heights of Up (no pun intended), Wall-E, or Coco, which join Toy Story on a list of Pixar movies in a class of their own, but Scanlon’s second film with the studio is worthy of its legendary halls.