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Dustin Putman

Onward  (2020)
3½ Stars
Directed by Dan Scanlon.
Voice Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Lena Waithe, Ali Wong, Kyle Bornheimer, Tracey Ullman, John Ratzenberger.
2020 – 103 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for peril and some mild thematic elements).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, February 20, 2020.
Pixar's magic is alive and thriving with "Onward," writer-director Dan Scanlon (2013's "Monsters University") and co-writers Jason Headley & Keith Bunin's lovingly crafted, sneakily deceptive coming-of-age fantasy. The quirkily amusing concept of its setting is fresh—the film takes place in a world populated by mythical beings where actual magic has taken a backseat in the present day to modern Earthbound convenience—but it's the picture's thoughtful story and emotionally true characters which prove most enduring. Beginning as a fairly broad comedy and concluding somewhere altogether different and profound, "Onward" knows exactly how to sink its hooks into the hearts of viewers.

In the town of New Mushroomton, Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) is celebrating his 16th birthday and struggling to find the self-confidence he knows he has buried inside himself. With only a taped recording of his dad's voice to listen to—his father passed away before he was born—Ian longs to know him better, clinging to the stories told by loving mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and the three special memories 19-year-old brother Barley (Chris Pratt) holds onto. It comes as something of a second-chance miracle, then, when Laurel reveals a birthday gift she promised her late husband not to give to their sons until they were both older: a wooden staff carrying a powerful phoenix gem and a magic spell which will conjure their dad back to life for just 24 hours. Things, alas, do not go as expected (the gem is broken before the entirety of their father's body is brought back), and soon Ian and Barley are setting off in Barley's clunky van on a race against time to locate another phoenix gem before the ticking clock on the spell runs out.

"Onward" is inspired in its imagination and universal in its themes of familial love and loss. The film's adventure plot proves gripping (there is an especially tense set-piece wherein Ian must use magic to walk across a gaping gorge), its humor is quick-witted (the tough-talking miniature biker fairies are deliciously funny), and supporting characters are distinct and colorful (Octavia Spencer is a highlight as the voice of the Manticore, a part-lion, part-scorpion who might be the only one to know the whereabouts of the phoenix gem). At the film's core, however, is a father-son tale told from the points of view of two close but decidedly different brothers. Where their urgent quest takes them is not as predictable as one might think, best left for audiences to personally discover. When a key third-act revelation arrives, it is, indeed, enough to grab one squarely and genuinely in the throat and heart. Looks can be deceiving, proclaims the age-old adage, and so it goes with "Onward," a fantastical comedy with a soul both remarkably wise and touchingly human.
© 2020 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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