“Onward” treks right into our hearts

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Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar

There are some certainties in this life. The sun rises and sets each day, the sky looks blue and water is wet. 

Among these realities is the fact that the folks at Pixar rarely fail to make dazzlingly animated family films that cause that lump to form in the back of your throat as you sit in the dark theater, sniffing and trying to hold back tears so you don’t look like a wimp  during movie night. 

“Onward,” directed by Dan Scanlon and starring the voice talents of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Octavia Spencer and many more, is one of these excellent  certainties. 

The world of “Onward” is one where the wonders and magic of old have been traded in for technology, convenience and a thriving suburbia. 

Dragons transform from fearsome beasts to household pets, and unicorn pegasi change from majestic creatures of the sky to dirty scavengers of the streets. 

Ian Lightfoot (Holland) has just turned 16 in his world. On this birthday, the fact of his father’s absence strikes him harder than it ever has before. 

Sure, he has a loving mother, a doofy, but caring, big brother and a loyal pet dragon, but Ian cannot escape the emptiness that his father’s death prior to his birth left in him. 

He grasps at every other person’s memory of his father and attempts to fill in that chasm, but to no avail. Insecure and afraid, Ian wanders through life, trying to figure out who he is and what he was meant to do. 

He and his brother Barley (Pratt) discover a clue when they find their dad’s old wizard’s staff along with a spell that will bring their father back, but for only a day. 

Filled with hope, Ian and Barley perform the spell. Before they know it, their dad begins to materialize! 

However, something quickly goes wrong, and they are left with a half complete spell and a half complete father. 

Ian, Barley and the bottom half of their dad set out on a perilous quest, in a world that has forgotten how to have an adventure. They search for a way to complete the spell, enabling Ian to finally meet the man he’s always missed, but never known. 

“Onward” is an absolute delight of a film that makes up for its familiar notes  with delightful animation, exceptional voice work from the cast and a few simple, but beautiful, twists that bring out some of its strongest themes of fraternal love and sacrifice. 

Holland and Pratt work wonderfully with each other, completely selling their roles and ever-weaving an infectious sense of fun throughout the film. 

Pratt’s work as Barley, a fearless and goofy guy who takes his D&D a bit too seriously and doesn’t particularly care for non-fantasy related reality, is simply lovable. He is perhaps very familiar for those of us at UD who spend a few too many nights in the basement of Haggerty, questing the night away with fellow adventurers. 

Holland’s performance especially evokes a powerful type of motivating melancholy in the first act that prepares the audience to root for this dynamic, questing duo of brothers throughout all their perils. 

The pain that Holland portrays in the smallest of moments gets to the heart of what it means to not know who you are and the agony of feeling empty and lost.

The relationship between Ian and Barley grounds this film and enchants all who know what it means to have a big, or little, brother in your life. 

Their connection and the way it matures throughout the film is the hook that Scanlon effectively uses to draw the emotions right out of even the most stone-hearted audiences.

In describing this film, it almost strikes me as needless to mention that Pixar, of course, has animated this film beautifully. The visual standard that all have come to expect of Pixar’s pictures is certainly met in this film and integrates magic and suburbia in a way that is completely comprehensible. 

We’ve all been spoiled by Pixar’s animation and storytelling prowess; “Onward” continues their exemplary work, even if it does adhere to a familiar storytelling formula. 

Go ahead and treat yourself to a fun and heartwarming time at the theater. “Onward” is certainly another Pixar film that more than earns its place in our hearts. 

And, if you go with friends or family, don’t forget to bring some tissues, just in case.

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