Pixar movies don’t tend to be judged in a vacuum as pieces of art unto themselves. Any given Pixar film is judged against every other film the studio has ever released. As soon as the credits roll, there’s an inclination to rank where the movie lands in Pixar’s Pantheon. It’s not something audiences and critics do with other studios; no one who reviewed The Invisible Man worried about where it belongs on the all-time Universal movies list. But the animation giant’s latest film Onward—a fantasy quest about family, growing up, and dealing with grief—comes with the added weight of covering similar terrain of classics like Up, Coco, and Finding Nemo. Not many films can live up to those expectations, and I’m not sure if Onward does either.
What I do know is that it doesn’t matter. Because Onward still has enough magic to be a wonderful and touching story all on its own.
Onward takes place in a world that used to be full of magic. But thanks to technology (which is much easier for everyone to use than magic is), ogres, centaurs, mermaids, and other magical creatures now live in boring suburban comfort. Unicorns aren’t majestic creatures of beauty here. They’re overgrown raccoons who raid garbage cans.
The movie follows two teenage elf brothers, Barley and Ian Lightfoot, voiced by Chris Pratt and Tom Holland. Pratt’s older Barley is a fearless, D&D-loving nerd unaware of how others view him. He’s also obsessed with his world’s magical past and drives a super geeky van he affectionately calls Guinevere. Holland’s Ian is a shy, awkward teenager who’s afraid of everything. All he wants is the chance to meet his dad, who died before Ian was born.
That’s exactly the opportunity he’s given on his 16th birthday, after his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives the boys a secret gift their dad Wilden left for them. It’s an old wizard’s staff, which, along with a magical jewel, can be used to bring their dad back for 24 hours. Unfortunately, the spell breaks on Ian midway through, and he only brings back his dad’s legs. Before the clock can run out the boys embark on a magical quest to find a second jewel so they can see their late father.
The premise combines a road trip movie with a coming-of-age story, with a dash of Weekend at Bernie’s-style physical comedy mixed in, all set in a fantasy world packaged inside a family story. That might sound like a lot, but the script makes it work, even if the combined effect is that Onward doesn’t feel like the most original story.
As soon as Wilden Lightfoot’s legs take form, the emotional weight of the story picks up. Watching the boys communicate with their father’s feet is more touching than you would imagine. But like all great Pixar movies, Onward is as funny as it is heartbreaking. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and gags in the film. Some of the humor comes from how the movie fully embraces the inherent silliness of two dorky teenagers using magic for the first time. A lot comes from Pratt’s Barley, a big lovable oaf who is naturally funny without trying to be.
There are also some genuinely exciting action sequences throughout, including one highway scene that is equal parts thrilling and hilarious. And a subplot featuring Corey the Manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer) adds just enough to make the world feel fully realized beyond the brothers’ journey.
The strength of Barley and Ian’s story is what makes Onward work. The two brothers are likable, and it’s fun spending time with the pair and rooting for them. Each has his own strengths and weaknesses, and their relationship is loving without being perfect. Sometimes they are ideal complements, while other times they clash. And those issues come to a head when, inevitably, they have to overcome obstacles on their quest. Some problems are out of their control. Others, more personal and painful, are of their own making.
But for as fun, touching, and exciting as the movie is for the first hour or so, it’s the last 40 minutes when Onward becomes special, in much the same way Coco did. The story we were invested in wasn’t what was most important, and the characters we were following were more complex than we thought. Everyone puts up their own defenses to deal with grief, but that can’t always shield us from the pain. And it’s always better to have help on any difficult quest, whether it be a magical one or life itself.
Onward also has one of my all-time favorite endings of any film, Pixar or otherwise. It might be a kid’s movie, but it’s challenging and mature in a way I didn’t expect. And it was better for it. The film has something beautiful and hopeful to say about both death and appreciating the love of those you still have. It expresses those ideas with a grace and understanding most stories never achieve. It’s why even though the story takes place in a fantasy world, the characters’ experiences feel real.
I don’t know if Onward is as good as Up or Finding Nemo. I’ve seen those movies so many times, and lived with them for so long, that’s it’s not fair to compare any new film to them immediately. What I do know is that by the end I had tears in my eyes and I felt better about the world. And any movie that can do that has the right kind of magic.
Featured Image: Pixar
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike, and also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.