Should you follow your gut or follow the rules? That’s the question at the heart of most Pixar movies, which so often star two mismatched buddies — typically a skinny neurotic and a short and/or stocky pleasure seeker — who must hash out their differences while saving the day. It’s certainly at the heart of Pixar’s Onward, which is even more explicit about these ideas than usual, since one of its two leads not only follows his guts, he talks about following his guts constantly, even over the objections of his nervous younger brother.
They are Barley (Chris Pratt) and Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), respectively, teenagers who live in a world populated by fantasy creatures who long ago abandoned their magical ways for a life of modern conveniences like electricity and automobiles. Ian is a shy and studious kid; Barley is an extrovert who loves rock and roll and his universe’s version of Dungeons and Dragons, a card game called Quests of Yore. Barley and Ian’s dad died before Ian was born, and despite boundless support from their loving mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), his absence weighs heavily on the family. On Ian’s 16th birthday, Laurel presents him with his father’s old wizard staff, along with a spell that can restore their dad for one day.
But magic is difficult to control — that’s part of the reason the elves, trolls, and orcs of this society stopped using it — and Ian botches the spell so that only the bottom half of his dad comes back. Literally he’s a pair of feet and legs and then a glowing hole at his belt line. That leaves Ian and Barley 24 hours to find a Phoenix Stone — a rare gem required to make the reincarnation spell work — and bring the rest of their father back before he’s gone forever.
It’s kind of a convoluted setup, and the early scenes are heavy with forced whimsy, as Barley and Ian’s quest for the Phoenix Gem gets sidetracked by one complication after another. They run out of gas and have to make more using magical spells; when that doesn’t work, they go to a gas station and encounter a biker gang full of tiny fairies. Then the movie refocuses on these two brothers and their relationship and it begins getting under your skin. The emphasis on the characters over the fantasy gags pays off in the finale, which apes a D&D game full of dangerous monster and complicated puzzles but roots all of the tension in restoring the Lightfoots’ dad before time runs out.
While Holland makes a fairly generic dorky teenager, Pratt — who was the heart and soul of the two LEGO Movies — gives yet another excellent vocal performance as the cocky but secretly sensitive Barley. And it’s nice that even while Ian and Barley fixate on their absent father, director Dan Scanlon and co-writers Jason Headley and Keith Bunin give plenty of screentime to Laurel, who is a caring, devoted, and even heroic single mom. She gets her own side quest, as it were, with a manticore named Corey, voiced by Octavia Spencer.
The wizard staff and spell also includes a letter from Ian’s dad. It begins with the line “Long ago, the world was full of wonder.” Onward quotes the line often enough that one eventually wonders whether Ian and Barley’s quest to rediscover magic represents Pixar’s quest to rediscover its magic after a decade where they released seven sequels and endured an endless cycle of “Are Pixar’s Glory Days Behind It?” hot takes.
Ian and Barley’s road trip — one of Pixar’s most recycled plots — gets off to a bumpy start. But the closer the boys get to their prize, the closer Pixar does get to recapturing that special quality of their best movies, which wed gorgeous computer animation to thrilling adventures and deeply emotional character arcs. Onward’s ups and downs suggest these probably are less magical times at Pixar. But that doesn’t mean with enough hard work or concentration — or maybe just following your gut — that the magic can’t come back, if only for a little while.
-Onward’s fantasy world has cute versions of real world products, including Mountain Doom instead of Mountain Dew. Look closely in the scenes set in the gas station for lots of Easter eggs.
-There’s a 0 percent chance that if Onward was made 15 years ago, Jack Black doesn’t play the Barley part. If you told me it was originally conceived specifically for him to play, I would believe it.