(2020) *** 1/2 Pg
102 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Director: Dan Scanlon. Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez.

/content/films/5198/1.jpgProcessing grief means working toward acceptance, a profound acceptance that allows for forward movement. While keeping its grief in plain sight, Disney/Pixar’s Onward also positions itself as a story about the spirit of limitless adventure, the lost wonder of childhood. In that respect, Onward embraces the paradox of recapturing what’s been lost even as it insists on moving ahead.

Admittedly, that’s all pretty heavy stuff for a kids movie, but it’s also entirely on brand for Pixar, the CGI-animation outfit that’s still a shiny jewel in Disney’s crown despite more recent acquisitions like Marvel and Lucasfilm. Somehow casually ambitious, Onward builds a whole new world for Disney/Pixar (albeit one that seems destined for sequelizing): Suburban New Mushroomton could well have been called “Fantasyland,” for it’s the sum of parts recognizable from franchises like Lord of the RingsHarry Potter, and Dungeons and Dragons(here renamed “Quests of Yore”): wizards, dragons, centaurs, fairies, mermaids, cyclopes, and winged unicorns. Alas, magic has been abandoned in favor of science.

On the face of it, implicitly down-voting science in favor of magic sounds like a socially conservative metaphor that might not be so welcome in a time when climate change poses an existential threat. Onward may repeatedly get behind trusting one’s gut rather than being practical, but it’s primarily interested in taking its premise to the benign territory of the inner child and the love of family. On his sixteenth birthday, teenage elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) can’t help but yearn for the father who died before he was born. While older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) and mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) loved and lost Ian’s father, all Ian has are photos and an old audio cassette recording, which he uses to synthesize a conversation with the man he never knew.

But Ian’s birthday present turns out to be one heck of a gift from his father: a magical staff that, if properly outfitted, can be wielded to cast a visitation spell. Ian can bring his father back for one day, allowing for the bonding experiences of Ian’s dreams. Lest it all be too easy, an interruption to the spell leaves Dad restored only from the waist down, forcing Ian and Barley on a quest to restore power to the staff. Off they go in Barley’s van Guinevere, with Laurel in loving pursuit, to finish the spell and bring back the rest of their late father (Octavia Spencer’s manticore-in-midlife-crisis and Mel Rodriguez’s centaur-cop Colt Bronco eventually join the chase).

It’s all a lot more straightforward than it may sound, and wildly manipulative in its emotional underpinnings, but Onward works smart to earn its sentiment. The consistently clever screenplay director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) co-wrote with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin clearly lays out character dynamics ripe for triumph: Ian’s angsty lack of confidence, Barley’s reputation as a “screw-up,” Laurel’s largely untested “warrior” skills. One typically pithy scene employs a spell that requires truth-telling to yield empathy for one character (Colt, who’s also Laurel’s boyfriend) and stoke productive conflict between the brothers. There’s colorful visual appeal in the film’s highly detailed world-building (and the Weekend at Bernie’s-style sight gags involving the boys’ Dad-on-a-leash), ultra-expressive character animation to complement the fine voice cast, and there’s even thematic synergy in the original score, composed by real-life brothers Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna.

All in all, Onward proves itself a very sweet, very entertaining blend of whimsy and peril. The screenwriters act as robust Dungeon Masters, throwing up obstacles to overcome and gleefully biding their time to pay off a well-planned campaign; at least one chase sequence had kids at my screening laughing in uncontrollable, full-throated hysterics for a solid five minutes. When they catch their breath from laughing, kids will walk away with the manticore’s motto “You have to take risks in life to have an adventure” and a newfound appreciation for their families: not bad for a couple of hours at the movies.

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