Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Lena Waithe, Ali Wong, Grey Griffin, Tracey Ullman, Wilmer Valderrama, George Psarras, Kyle Bornheimer, John Ratzenberger (voices)
Written by: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin
Directed by: Dan Scanlon
MPAA Rating: PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements
Running Time: 102
Date: 03/06/2020

Onward (2020)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Hope Quest

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Pixar's first non-sequel in five years, since Inside Out, Onward may be structured as a traditional race-against-time movie, but it is exquisite in its details, from the surreal absurdity of the lower half of a man wandering around by itself to the heartbreaking sweetness of a boy communicating with his dead father via a cassette recording.

Onward begins with a prologue, introducing us to a world in which magic exists, but has been largely forgotten in an age of conveniences and technology. The story focuses on the shy, awkward elf Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland), who has just turned sixteen and has many questions about his father, who died when he was small. His older brother Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt) has a few vague memories of dad, and has spent his life studying magic and lore, immersing himself in role-playing games, and restoring an old van, his "steed" for imagined quests.

Their mother (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus), brings them a package left by dad, to be delivered when both boys were over 16. It's a magic staff, plus a spell to bring dad back for 24 hours. But the spell goes wrong, and only dad's lower half appears, from his belt to his shoes. So the boys decide to seek a special gem that will allow them to complete the spell, and finally spend time with their father.

The wonderful Octavia Spencer completes the package as The Manticore, a one-time warrior that has given up her wild ways to run a family-friendly restaurant, and eventually pitches in. The boys' adventures take them on many Indiana Jones-inspired stops, from a bottomless canyon to a pit that fills with water unless its puzzle can be solved in time, and then an amazing dragon-like final foe.

Inevitably, everything comes down to the final minutes of the 24 hours, and the movie, the second animated feature by director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) does this exactly right. Onward balances excitement, humor, and heart-tugging feels with expert precision, and it's a fully satisfying experience (although perhaps more for boys and dads than for girls and moms?).

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