A film by Pixar is invariably a big movie event. Ever since 1995 when it gained critical and commercial acclaim with "Toy Story," every new Pixar film had been met with much anticipation from kids of all ages. Yes, including me.
For some reason though, this latest film of Pixar, "Onward" (the first Pixar film without John Lasseter), went under my radar, so I knew nothing about it when I went in to watch the advanced screening. The vague nondescript title did not give any clues, so discovering the plot unfold was going to be very exciting.
The story was set in New Mushroomton, a suburban community of magical creatures who had steadily lost their magical abilities because of the progress of modern technology, which made their powers seem obsolete. The story centered on a family of elves named Lightfoot, headed by widowed mother Laurel (Julia Louis Dreyfus). She has two teenage boys: a reckless, role-playing game addict eldest son Barley (Chris Pratt); and his timid, fearful younger brother Ian (Tom Holland).
On the occasion of Ian's 16th birthday, Laurel brought out a gift from their departed father which could enable a spell to bring him back to life for 24 hours. Since Ian only discovered that he had wizard abilities just that day, he was only able to bring the lower half of his body back. The two brothers then had to embark on a grand quest to recover a rare gemstone which could allow Ian to complete the spell, but they only had less than 20 hours to do so, or else they lose the chance to reunite with their father forever.
Unlike other Pixar films which were impressively original in content, this one felt like you've seen it before. The suburban community of mythical creatures reminded me of Guillermo del Toro's Netflix animated series "Trollhunters." That Ian discovered his wizard abilities on his birthday was rather Harry Potter-ish, as well as his failed initial attempts at casting spells. There was also a bit of "Frozen" in the mix as well, as it centered on the relationship between two siblings who never really quite got along well while growing up.
Even some aspects fo the artwork, a main Pixar hallmark, felt like you've seen it before. The characters here looked like they were from a Dreamworks film rather than a Disney-Pixar film. In particular, the hefty Barley Lightfoot looked very similar to the character of Snoutlout from "How to Train Your Dragon" among other familiar looking characters.
They also mined older Pixar films for inspiration. For instance, the character design of the Manticore (Octavia Spencer) I felt looked like a cross between Sully of "Monsters Inc." and Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear of "Toy Story 3."
However, I have to say there were still a lot of proudly Pixar moments, most especially those exhilarating moments of the brothers crossing the bottomless chasm or fighting the major curse unleashed by the magic gem.
The voice work of Pratt and Holland were perfect for their characters. This film may appeal more to older kids than the very young ones, whom I only heard laughing during those requisite slapstick comedy scenes in films like this.
The pacing was rather uneven along the way. However, that final battle and the dramatic scenes of brotherhood that follow will get your undivided attention and emotional connection.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."