The opening moments of Onward whisk us back to a world of wonder, populated by galloping centaurs, spell-casting wizards and fire-breathing dragons. Speaking of which, you’ll be forgiven for briefly wondering if you’ve stumbled into a How to Train Your Dragon sequel by mistake. The digital wizards at Pixar Animation Studios pride themselves, with good reason, on their originality and ingenuity, but this particular once-upon-a-time scene-setter feels curiously, even knowingly derivative. It means to remind us of an era when magic ruled the Earth, and to assure us that it will rule again.
Real magic, by which I mean genuinely transporting fantasy, isn’t an easy thing for a movie to promise in this day and age. The major studios – including the ravenous hydra-headed content factory that is Disney – are often content to deliver spectacle without wonder, churning out familiar stories and prepackaged life lessons to be wearily received by a seen-it-all audience.
And so it’s understandable that Onward, Pixar’s 22nd animated feature, would express some nostalgia for a purer, grander storytelling past, even as its title points with insistent optimism toward the future.
And I’m pleased to report that said optimism is not entirely unfounded. Although it does not join the likes of The Incredibles and WALL-E in the pantheon of company masterworks, Onward is a touching, lovingly crafted oddity – a movie that acknowledges its borrowed elements at the outset and then proceeds to reinvigorate them with tried-and-true Pixar virtues: sly wit, dazzling invention and a delicacy of feeling that approaches the sublime.
You’ll forgive the car crash metaphor, but it seems appropriate, since Onward, most of which unfolds in the present day, boasts more vehicular recklessness than any Pixar movie outside the Cars franchise. The protagonist is a blue-skinned, pointy-eared elf named Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland), who has just turned 16 and is thus old enough to learn how to drive – a prospect that, like nearly everything else in life, fills him with dread and anxiety.
He couldn’t be more different from his older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), a goofy, boisterous slacker who tears up the streets of their suburban hamlet in a rattletrap van named Gwinny (short for Guinevere).
The conceit of the movie – written by Dan Scanlon (who also directed), Jason Headley and Keith Bunin – is that although we are in a land populated entirely by trolls, centaurs, mermaids and other mythic creatures, magic itself is a thing of the past, having long been eclipsed by science and modern technology. Ian and Barley have a pet dragon, but they also have smartphones, boomboxes and kitchen appliances.
The crass commercialization and relentless standardization of modern life has been a choice satirical target for Pixar movies as different as Ratatouille and Toy Story.
What makes this one pretty good, and sometimes inspired, is that despite the occasional canned sentiment or overly familiar conflict, all those emotions seem to spring naturally from the story’s intricate roots. And even at its most unabashedly wacky, that story – stuffed with goofy in-jokes, pulse-quickening action scenes and a supporting cast of leather-clad sprites on mini-motorcycles (what else?) – has been imagined and conceptualized with a recognizably Pixarian rigor.
The puzzles they must solve, the incantations they must utter and the bolts of lightning that erupt from Ian’s staff will return more than a few members of the audience to the days they spent happily reading Harry Potter or playing Dungeons & Dragons, even if those days were just last week. Sound like something you’ve seen before? It is – and somehow, it isn’t. Maybe real magic isn’t dead after all.