If magic, fairies, and mythical creatures all existed, they wouldn’t be that unlike the rest of us. They would use the internet, enjoy fast food restaurants, and place their large, centaur behinds in the passenger seat of sedans and drive to work. It’s the world of Disney and Pixar’s latest film, Onward, where the magical elements of real-life lore have become second to technological advancements and the eases of civilization. Just as humans don’t forge and gather anymore, pixies don’t need to use their wings when they have Harleys to get around from place to place.
When the questions of your past meet up with the questions of your future, figuring out who you are can be a mythic quest of its own. That’s the journey for Ian Lightfoot, anyway, the protagonist and 16-year-old birthday boy (actually, birthday elf) at the heart of Pixar’s animated adventure, looking to overcome his shyness and do right by the late father he never knew.
When Dad’s magical staff used by wizard elves of the past is posthumously presented to Ian and his older brother, Barley, the Lightfoot brothers have the chance to bring their father back to see the grown boys they’ve become — but only for 24 hours. After a botched spell resurrects only the lower half of Dad, Ian and fantasy-history nerd Barley must go on an ancient quest to unearth the right magic needed to bring the rest of Dad back before it’s too late.
It’s an adventurous, clever, and ever-emotional tale from Pixar, which will no doubt dispel any hesitations about the animation studio’s abilities to straight-up get to you. After establishing the 21st century-ified Narnia setting, in which flipping a light switch is easier than casting a magical fire, the clever worldbuilding slows and predictions of what could be a cheesy, blossoming-wallflower-type plot can’t help but flood a skeptical mind. But soon, as buffooning and well-intentioned Barley shepherds Ian’s education into wizardry, the true magic begins: strong relationships, great gags, and surprisingly intense action, all of which, like any great family film, ultimately hits viewers of all ages.
When Barley, Ian, and waist-down Dad load into Barley’s dream machine van, lovingly named Guinevere, the action explodes down busy highways and in burning buildings in heart-pounding moments unmatched by any previous Pixar film. Maybe the very pragmatic, everyday worries of an adult won’t lend itself to palm-sweating in a younger audience member, but in some nerve-wracking scenes, such as when Ian has to conjure an invisible bridge to cross a 50-foot gap above a bottomless pit solely by steadfastly believing the bridge exists beneath his feet, this reviewer was very surprised to feel the stone-sized lump of fear in his stomach form when Ian’s safety rope unknowingly unravels from his waist. Surrounded by a theater of giggling 6-year-olds, I was truly terrified.
Other scenes, thankfully, are downright fun. Ian’s missteps in his magic lessons lead to some naturally comical results. An attempt to grow the few drops in a gas can accidentally shrinks Barley down to pixie size, which doesn’t bode well after a run-in with an all pixie biker gang. The duo’s single mother, Laurel, played on point by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, goes hardcore tiger-mom to find her quest-quarreled kids alongside a retired Manticore (a playful Octavia Spencer), a once ferocious, winged lion-scorpion warrior turned Chuck E. Cheese proprietor. The Manticore’s anxiety can be a bit frustrating, however, and certain gags intended to counter her might don’t exactly land.
Laurel’s new boyfriend, centaur cop Colt Bronco, provides some light, eye roll-worthy sayings as the would-be stepdad you love to make fun of IRL. And in one touching scene after a strained moment between Ian and Barley, Dad’s legs take to the rhythms of Guinevere’s stereo, welcoming a cheesy and heartwarming Dad dance break — right down to the off-beat toe-tapping and knee-buckling.
The rest of the voice cast is stellar, too. Tom Holland is a good fit as unsure Ian, but Chris Pratt truly shines as dorky Barley. It’s a role the former Parks and Recreation star was unsurprisingly born to play, but who does surprise audiences with a great deal of heart and purity pushed through Barley’s sleeveless, geek-rock look. The gentle big brother is one of the most loyal and genuine characters to be presented in Disney films in a long time. If Ian can teach viewers to find themselves, Barley can teach anyone to be themselves.
Despite the mystical setting, the movie isn’t that far-fetched and very easy to follow whether or not you’re a fan of Dungeons & Dragons or Spielbergian movie quests. The simultaneous sense of burden and bonding between the Lightfoots is relatable and realistic, showing the strain and ultimate love that can exist between brothers.
Just as in Disney’s Frozen, Onward’s true climax lies in the revelation of the love between two siblings after suffering a shared loss. The film takes you for an exciting, heart-pounding ride previously unknown to Pixar’s repertoire, but it nevertheless grounds you with a truly Pixarian finish: an emotional, heartfelt ending that is simply undeniable. The best films inspire growth in their characters, and despite its few lapses, Onward will inspire you to share all of your quests with a loved one.
For a strangely magical experience, see Onward in theaters, where you’ll be able to catch the animated short before the film, which does not actually come from the world of Pixar but the world of The Simpsons. The silent film follows a lovesick baby Maggie in a heartfelt short that surprisingly fits well into the Pixar canon. It’s a delightful reminder that The Simpsons still has a wide reach — and so does Disney, which pretty much owns everything now.
Onward hits theaters nationwide on March 6.