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Review: Pixar's 'Onward' makes the fantastical relatable

Animated adventure unfolds in a magical world of elves where the familiar is slightly askew

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Two brothers embark on an expedition and find that they are each other's magic in "Onward," an emotionally rich tale about picking up from loss and moving forward, full speed ahead. 

The animated adventure doesn't have the wizardry of Pixar's best, most transfixing works. But it has a lot of heart, and that heart is the engine that drives it to its warm, satisfying conclusion.    

Tom Holland (left) and Chris Pratt (right) voice characters in "Onward."

In the town of New Mushroom, life is a fractured fairy tale where elves, centaurs and pet dragons co-exist, and unicorns are like raccoons eating out of trash cans. Picture the world of "Dungeons and Dragons" through the skewed lens of "Shrek" and you're on the right game board.   

Ian Lightfoot (voice of "Spider-Man's" Tom Holland) is turning 16 and receives a wizard's staff for his birthday. He uses it to cast a spell to bring back his father, who died before he was born, but the spell only partially works: it brings back his father's khaki-clad legs, which walk around aimlessly without a top. 

Ian only has 24 hours until the spell is up, so he sets off on a quest along with his leather jacket-clad, metal-dude brother Barley (Chris Pratt) to fix the spell and bring back his dad. Things don't go quite as planned — do they ever? — but Ian learns an important lesson in the value of family along the way. 

"Onward" is quirky and kooky and left-of-center; however you look at it, depicting a father as just a pair of legs is straight up weird. Pixar can make weird work, however, and though not all its eccentricities click — a human-lion hybrid manticore, voiced by Octavia Spencer and depicted as the manager at a Medieval Times-style family restaurant, only half-works — things fall into place along the course of the odyssey and the characters' emotional connections are shored up, which is the true point of the tale. 

Clawson-bred co-writer and director Dan Scanlon ("Monsters University"), who lost his father when he was young, based the story on his own relationship with his brother, and while the setting and characters are fantastical, the family bonds (Julia Louis-Dreyfus is recognizable as a Midwestern mom) are as familiar as a home-cooked meal. 

That's the Pixar trademark, making the fantastical familiar, and "Onward" hits its marks while striking the right sentimental chords. It's a conquering journey. 



Rated PG: for action/peril and some mild thematic elements

Running time: 102 minutes