Tom Holland seems to be cornering the voice acting market this year; he’s a faithful pup in “Dolittle,” and plays basically the same character in “Spies in Disguise” (shy, smart, nerdy) as he does in the latest Pixar release, “Onward.”
In the film, Holland’s character has just turned 16, and as a result gets a gift from his father, who died before he was born. His older brother (Chris Pratt, in a mini-Marvel Cinematic University reunion) susses out that it’s a magic staff capable of performing a spell that will allow them to meet and hang with their father for a day. Did I forget to mention that magic exists in this world? And that the brothers are elves? Turns out once industrialized science became readily available, and since magic required skill, people just kinda stopped bothering, in possibly the most unbelievable part of this film. Unfortunately, something goes awry with the spell, and the brothers must go on a quest for a Phoenix gem that can complete the spell. Joining them on said quest is their father’s lower half, the only part of him that made it through.
It is impressive how the Pixar folks are so experienced by this point that they can wring character and emotion out of only a waist and some legs and feet. The ways that the boys and their dad introduce themselves and communicate are sweet and surprisingly moving. In another refreshing change, there is no villain, save perhaps the clock. This is a relief as Pixar’s “villain trap” had been getting really old.
While “Onward” is at many points fun, its ambition doesn’t let it quite reach the upper pantheon of other Pixar releases, an unfortunate consequence of its own pedigree. It doesn’t do enough with the potential of the world and the premise it set up at the beginning, and for a studio like Pixar that can’t help but be somewhat of a letdown. Too many things are derivative, or the jokes are sight gags that play off fantasy tropes, not really bringing anything *new* to the table. A formative “origin” point of Chris Pratt’s Barley is exactly the same as Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The booby traps are all from the Indiana Jones series; in fact, they’re almost all from just “Last Crusade.”
Where “Onward” is on surer footing is its emotional payoff. In classic Pixar fashion the waterworks come on at the end in a lovely fashion, from a direction that’s unexpected, emphasizing brotherly bonds and filling in for absent figures. In this, “Onward” provides something truly refreshing and sweet.
“Onward” is in theaters March 4.