What am I supposed to say here? "Wow, Pixar has done it again!"? "More magic and wonder and humor and melancholy from Pixar!"? "Hooray for an enthralling, fully realized fantasy world!"?
Pixar keeps hitting it out of the park, and I'm running out of different ways to say the same thing over and over again.
The way to do it is to damn with faint praise, maybe. Onward is not another Inside Out, perhaps one of the most audacious, most insightful, most perfect movies ever made, by anyone. It ain't Ratatouille, with its profound and impossibly touching tale of the necessity of pursuing one's passion and dedicating oneself to excellence. If we're gonna grade on a Pixar curve, very few movies would ever measure up. And Onward doesn't. It's not a masterpiece. It's only very good.
Unlike in way too many Disney movies, the protagonist, 16-year-old elf Ian Lightfoot (the voice of Tom Holland), did not lose his mother as a small child. It's his father who has died, before Ian was even born. His mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), is still around as a loving, supportive figure, and she also gets to be a badass mom hero as she supports Ian's journey.
There's still nothing terribly original in the teenage-boy-with-daddy-issues angst that fuels the plot, but the setting is absolutely delightful, and unlike any I've ever seen before: A gorgeous, funny world much like our own, a society of smartphones and gas-station convenience stores and heritage being bulldozed in the name of progress. Except that heritage is one full of wizardry and daring quests and numerous sentient races — elves and orcs and pixies and centaurs and so on — living together in relative harmony.
The fictional clichés of our Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings are the literal history of the people of Onward, and they continued developing their civilization from medieval-esque levels of technology to what we would call modern information-era stuff. There are tons of blink-and-you-miss-'em visual jokes and flourishes in the clever animation — pulled off with lively, buoyant verve — that considers how these two usually divergent cultural modes might meld, and I'm sure I did indeed miss plenty of them.
Ian discovers that he has a rare ancient talent for wizardry when he receives an antique staff his father left for him, and also for his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt), although Barley is unable to activate it. Now, the boys need to fix a spell gone wrong... a spell their father, an accountant who dabbled in magic, left behind that would allow them to spend a day with his briefly resurrected self. So Ian and Barley go on an old-style quest to find the MacGuffin gem they need to fix the broken spell, which Barley knows all about, because he's a history nut, though to our eye he looks like a heavy-metal D&D nut. There's something wonderfully ticklish in how screenwriters Jason Headley, Keith Bunin and Pixar veteran (and also the director) Dan Scanlon play with how clichés of adolescent malehood are coded, and Barley is a completely different sort of nerd than we're used to.
Ian? He's a pretty familiar awkward teen: nervous, uncertain, shy, clumsy. His personal quest will be all about finding the magic in himself — mostly figuratively — while inspiring others around him to do the same, such as the hilarious tough but tiny biker pixies and the Manticore (Octavia Spencer) who is roused out of her suburban-businesswoman mode into rediscovering her inner monster in order to given them some vital assistance along the way.
I mean, yeah: There's magic here, of all kinds. Not much of it is completely unexpected or unusual. But it's charming. And very Pixar. ♦