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— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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Onward proves the Pixar magic is alive and well.

Magical Stories

Barley and Ian
Barley and Ian

It’s a really quirky story concept, a seemingly uncomfortable one for a family movie. The very idea of it doesn’t sound pleasant at first blush. In a magical realm, an opportunity to bring a father back to life — if only for 24 hours — goes awry, leaving a void from the hips up. His legs do a jig and his feet tap out a playful recognition, but his torso never materializes. His two sons — one has never met Dad; he was born after his father died — have limited time to restore his bust.

Gosh. Right from the start the setup signals a bittersweet conclusion is inevitable.

That story summary is right up there with other “what were they thinking?” story pitches. Consider the one about an awkward culinary prodigy who ignores every health code tenet in the books by adopting a rat as a companion in a prestigious Parisian restaurant. It’s a healthy mix of bad sanitation and good gastronomy. Or the one about a kid who skirts his family’s long-standing ban on music and goes on a mission to find his great-great-grandfather in the Land of the Dead. Then there’s the one about a little girl who has to work through all sorts of emotions when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. The characters would include Joy, Fear, Sadness, Anger and Disgust; consider it a study of how the mind works.

Who would make movies out of those ghastly ideas? More importantly, who the heck would possibly go see them?

Well, there they are. Some of Pixar’s greatest contributions to animation. Ratatouille. Coco. Inside Out. Each one a wildly inventive, deeply relatable masterpiece of creativity.

Onward is sure to join their ranks.

The Path of Peril

This one takes place in an alternate universe, one in which elves, unicorns, mermaids and centaurs exist, but all of the magic went away in the advent of electricity. Houses look like Smurfy mushrooms; it’s the kind of place in which old-school audio cassette decks sit comfortably alongside smartphones.

While magic went away from daily life, for some it continues on as an element in Quests of Yore, a Dungeons and Dragons-style game played by overly zealous history buffs like Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt, Guardians of the Galaxy). For others, like Barley’s younger brother, Ian (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Far from Home), magic was, is and ever will be merely a fantasy.

As the story opens, Ian’s getting ready to celebrate his 16th birthday. He’s almost a man, but right now he’s a typically confused kid who crafts a to-do list of items to help him grow up. He wants to speak up more, invite school kids to a party and learn how to drive. Most importantly, he wants to be bolder. Based on stories he’s heard, his dad was a bold man.

To help celebrate the big 1-6, it’s time for Mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, TV’s Cheers) to reveal a gift left behind by the boys’ father. It’s a staff. A magical staff. The stuff of Gandalf and Merlin and so many other wizards.

Spells and Gems

The half-dad
The half-dad

What follows is something special, a story that overflows with that trademark Pixar heart.

While Ian’s never met his dad, Barley has four memories of his father, including one he’d rather forget. In short, he freaked out at the end.

Both desperately want to see Dad. So many attempts at conjuring up spells — all based on Barley’s gameplaying fanaticism — fail. But then... it happens. The spell, the staff — it all comes together. Unfortunately, Dad doesn’t. He begins to materialize from the shoes up, but then the spell is broken. What to do?!

The boys go on a real quest to find the Phoenix gem, a mystical stone that’ll provide the magical energy needed to complete Dad’s reincarnation.

It’s such a morbid image: a father’s body — from the waist down — attached to a dog leash (err... make that a pet dragon leash) follows the boys around like a puppy trying to escape from under a bed sheet. So morbid. Such a weird idea.

And, ultimately, it’s something wonderful.

Taking a Risk

What follows is a road trip and the inspiration for the movie’s title. The boys travel in Barley’s jalopy of a van way out into the mountains. Along the way, like any quest, they encounter all manner of characters and obstacles.

And they learn a lot about life and themselves.

One of those key lessons resonates above all the others: “You have to take risks in life to have an adventure.” And these kids have quite the adventure, with their half-dad in tow.

What sets this apart is a truly inventive story structure that perfectly sets up challenges followed by logical solutions. How do you escape a flooded tunnel when the release valve requires holding your breath for a really long time? Well, how about seeking the help of a character who has no mouth? Dad to the rescue.

Onward is a new fairy tale with enormous replay value; there are so many moments destined for classic status.

As the whimsical story unfolds, it skillfully (seemingly effortlessly — let’s call it magically) sets up one monster of a climactic set piece. It simply doesn’t get any better than watching a story build up all sorts of momentum and then enjoy the pay-off of all that effort.

In the case of Onward, that pay-off is one superbly heartfelt and heartrending sensation that balances out the familial emotions with some really terrific — and wonderfully humorous — visuals.