Reel Reviews | Onward

by Charles Kirkland Jr.

Spider-Man and Star-Lord go on a magical adventure to meet their father in the latest Disney/Pixar animated feature, Onward.

In a world where magical creatures have replaced magic with science, Ian Lightfoot voiced by Tom Holland) is ready to celebrate his 16th birthday.  Despite having his screw-up big brother, Barley (Chris Pratt) and mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) to celebrate, Ian longs to share the day with the father that he never knew because he died while Ian was a baby.  Ian is gifted a magic spell designed to bring his father back for one day as a special surprise birthday present and after watching his big brother fail in attempting the spell, Ian accidentally casts the spell.  Unfortunately, whether from lack of inexperience, confidence or sincerity, Ian botches the spell bringing back only the lower half of his Dad.  Now the boys must embark upon a quest to retrieve a crystal to finish the spell and reunite the top half of their Dad with the lower half and the rest of the family.

Director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) did double duty as he co-wrote Onward with Jason Headley (A Bad Idea Gone Wrong) and Keith Bunin (Horns).  As in most Pixar movies, Onward is littered with voice over stars including Holland, Pratt and Louis-Dreyfus and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, Tracey Ullman, Wilmer Valderrama, Mel Rodriguez, and Lena Waithe.

A lot of headlines have been made about Lena Waithe’s character in the movie, a cyclops police officer named Spector.  The buzz about the role is that Waithe is the first openly gay character in a Pixar movie.  The truth of the matter is that this is a blink and you will miss it the moment where the character speaks one line that will identify her has having a girlfriend.  It is a leap beyond having a same-sex couple in the background of scenes in previous movies but is it noteworthy?

Onward is set in a fantasy world where two brothers who are elves encounter pixies, cyclops, a centaur, and a manticore.  They live in a world of magic but they have forgotten what makes them magical for science.  Not since Zootopia has there been a movie as replete with social commentary as this film.  Social themes about loss of identity and the dangerous reliance upon science are prevalent while family themes of fatherhood, brotherhood and substitutional parenting are just as strong. The combination of these themes results in a truly emotional journey that can speak to almost every viewer.

Chris Pratt is hilarious in channeling Jack Black as Barley the bumbling yet lovable big brother.  He cracks bad jokes and is totally embarrassing to his younger brother in the company of anyone else which is devastating as Ian approaches this special time in his life.  Sound familiar?  Sure does, because it could be the story from almost any family.

Onward is a fantasy adventure movie that at its heart is a buddy movie about two brothers, the love they have, the love they share and the sacrifices that they make for each other.  It is a beautiful companion to Inside Out that dives deeply into the heart of the family and how it copes with loss. 

Rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements, Onward is a superb film that has heart.  It is amazingly, heart-warming and re-affirms all that is special about a family, no matter what it looks like.

Grade:  A