Although Pixar has developed a wildly successful formula, it is, nonetheless, a formula. You’ve got the quest, usually driven by someone’s emotional longings. You’ve got the frenetic action, you’ve got the vividly realistic (if not a bit exaggerated) characters and landscapes. You’ve got the laugh-out-loud jokes and sight gags. And you’ve got the big, “we dare you to not cry” resolution. And, with only the occasional misfire (Planes comes to mind), it always works. While the stories may share similar DNA, the Pixar movies live and die by the strength of their characters and quests. With Onward, they’ve hit the mark again. The story — two teenage elves who, thanks to a magical scepter, will be able to spend one day with their late father — is clearly a personal one for writer/director Dan Scanlon. He lost his own father at a young age, and that idea of wish fulfillment lovingly permeates the film.
Playing the two teens, Tom Holland and Chris Pratt — both young veterans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — share a boisterous, joyous camaraderie that’s tailor-made for the Pixar aesthetic. The actors are friends in real life, and that vibe definitely informs their performances in the movie.
As always, there are sight gags for viewers of all ages — older moviegoers will certainly get a kick out of the Weekend at Bernie’s homage — and the film’s decision to place its elves in a modern suburban setting will help it resonate with its tween and teen audience.Of course, by the end, the boys (and the viewers) realize the gift they’ve been given is not what they originally expected. In trying to discover the man their father was in the past, the brothers are really setting down a road to discover the men they’ll be in the future, and therein lies the true Pixar magic: in its characters fantasy worlds, we can learn more about our own reality.
The supporting cast, led by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer and Emmy-winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is solid, and it wouldn’t be a Pixar film without breathtaking cinematography and music.
Though its elfin protagonists may not have quite as long a shelf life as Pixar’s more iconic characters, ultimately, the movie is another winning, worthy addition to the studio’s library.