With an uninspired title like Onward the newest offering from Pixar doesn’t do itself justice. Derived from director and co-writer Dan Scanlon’s experience growing up without knowing his father, this heartfelt film scores a direct hit on our emotions.
Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) is a nice kid with no self-confidence. He can’t even muster the nerve to invite some classmates to his birthday party…unlike his gangly big brother Barley (Chris Pratt), who still believes in the magic and sorcery that used to rule their world. Barley convinces his sibling that by summoning a certain spell they can bring their father back—for just one day. This will require Ian to find the courage he’s never shown before, not to mention faith in the power of magic.
Like the best Pixar and Disney animated films, this one supplies rooting interest in its heroes from the very start. We want them to succeed because we care about them and their quest. Who wouldn’t want to be reunited with a loved one, especially when his absence has left a void in their lives?
Onward manages to find a balance between comedy and adventure that’s eminently satisfying. I screened this for my class of 20-somethings at USC and they were highly responsive, laughing and crying just as the filmmakers intended. The “magic” ingredient that drives this movie is sincerity. Although its path is strewn with unpredictable hurdles it never gets bogged down in storytelling clutter. The screenplay, credited to Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin, builds on a solid foundation with just enough room for comedy (when it’s needed) and colorful supporting characters. They include a strong but loving mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and a magical creature (Olivia Spencer) who’s let her powers lie dormant for too long.
The folks at Pixar make impressive-looking animated features–but storytelling is where they really excel and flourish. Onward is just the latest example and it’s well worth seeing, with or without kids at your side. It speaks to the child in all of us.