Review: Pixar’s ‘Onward’ combines ‘Harry Potter’ with ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’

“Onward,” an undeniably emotional and imaginative concept, joins that rich tradition, without reaching the upper rungs of the ladder set by its predecessors.
WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews Pixar's 'Onward'

Pixar’s nearly untouchable track record makes each new release appointment viewing.

But its latest film shifts from animation to reanimation, as in reviving a dead loved one.

As a result, “Onward” is hands down their most bizarre film yet, weaving wonderfully weird elements over an underlying touching tale of universal family themes.

Set in a fantasy suburbia where technology made magic obsolete, teen elf Ian Lightfoot grieves the death of his father he never met. He loves his single mom, but he is awkward making friends at school and embarrassed by his boisterous older brother, Barley.

On his 16th birthday, Ian surprisingly receives a wizard’s staff from his late father with instructions for a spell to bring him back for one day only. Sadly, the spell is interrupted, leaving only half a father from the waist down. Thus, the brothers embark on a quest to find a mystical Phoenix Stone to bring back the rest of their father before sundown.

Your enjoyment will hinge on whether you can get past the concept of a deceased father’s severed body bouncing around screen. Thankfully, it’s played for comedy, not morbidity.

A magical blue glow shines from his waist, as the brothers fashion an upper-body disguise out of old hats and sweatshirts as Dad staggers around like “Weekend at Bernie’s” (1989).

The reason we’re willing to go along for the ride is the strength of the voice cast. Tom Holland has already proven his penchant for teenage angst in “Spider-Man,” while “Guardians of the Galaxy” star Chris Pratt does his best Jack Black impression as Barley driving a beat-up van nicknamed Guinevere that is decorated for maximum tackiness.

Rounding out the cast are Julia Louis-Dreyfus as their single mom; Mel Rodriguez as their wannabe stepdad and centaur cop; Octavia Spencer as a manticore mix of lion, bird and scorpion; Lena Waithe and Ali Wong as cycloptic police officers; and Tracey Ullman as a slimy pawnshop owner (Fittingly, we get a short film of “The Simpsons” before the movie).

Still, no matter how many zany characters pop up, this film is all about the brothers. After decades of Disney flicks about princess romance and parental death, it’s refreshing to see a rare focus on siblings. Much like “Frozen” did for sisters, “Onward” does for brothers.

Along these lines, note the symbolic importance that Barley wears a phoenix symbol on the back of his jean jacket. The message is clear: They may spend the entire movie searching for a Phoenix Stone, but the answer is really right under their noses all along.

If you’ve ever lost a parent or grew up with an absent parent, you’re guaranteed to cry. If not, you’ll still cry at the thought of losing your parents and the idea that you would do anything to bring them back. No journey would be too tough; no distance would be too far.

As the brothers venture out on their journey, they gradually move away from urban elements of the real world (Medieval restaurants, traffic-packed highways, construction zones) to encounter a number of fantasy elements (magic spells, draw bridges, dragons).

Under writer/director Dan Scanlon, storyboard artist on “Cars” (2006) and director of “Monsters University” (2013), the world building isn’t as clearly defined as the closet doors of “Monster’s Inc.” or the ocean of “Finding Nemo.” Instead, it’s a hodgepodge of derivative elements of “Dungeons & Dragons,” “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings and “Indiana Jones.”

As such, it’s hard to see this catching on culturally to the point of its characters becoming mascots at Disney World. You can’t exactly have a severed body wobbling around the Magic Kingdom, while the miniature fairy biker gang isn’t as child friendly as Tinkerbell.

Even so, not every movie has to be a cultural phenomenon. If you’re simply looking for an enjoyable ride that tugs at your heartstrings, “Onward” delivers the goods as Guinevere gets a Bing Bong sendoff like “Inside Out” before Ian realizes the power of his checklist.

In these moments, “Onward” exceeds our expectations from the odd trailers, proving that Pixar can take any concept, no matter how weird, and turn it into an emotional winner.

Onward and upward.

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