“Onward,” the newest animated adventure from Disney/Pixar, brings mainstream representation to a group previously relegated to the margins of pop culture: the fantasy-obsessed metalhead.
In this warm tale of brotherly love forged during an epic coming-of-age quest, Chris Pratt voices older bro Barley, a burly elf in a battle vest with an affinity for generically branded versions of Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering.
In his trusty steed Guinevere, an old van airbrushed with Pegasus (which Pixar may or may not have stolen from a Bay Area artist, pending an intellectual property lawsuit), Barley blasts heavy metal tunes about wizards and beasts and magic.
But this isn’t Barley’s story; it’s the story of his younger brother, Ian (Tom Holland), a shy young elf who discovers that he does, indeed, have a little magic in him.
In this world of fantasy creatures (elves, pixies, ogres, centaurs), magic has gone out of fashion, replaced with electricity and appliances, the magical beings having settled into a comfortable suburban domesticity.
Ian has all the issues of any awkward teenager: an overbearing brother, crippling social anxiety, his mom’s boyfriend is a cop. Also, he longs for a connection to his father, who died before he was born.
On his 16th birthday, a dejected Ian receives a gift from his father: a wizard staff and spell bestowed to both brothers with the hopes they can conjure up Dad for one more day. The brothers bungle it, bringing him only halfway back; they manage to manifest his legs before the rare Phoenix gem explodes.
In hopes of completing the spell before he disappears at the next sunset, the brothers hit the road for an old-fashioned quest.
The premise makes “Onward” potentially the most morbid example of the Disney Dead Parents trope — the easy shortcut right to emotional stakes for the young characters, creating the potent blend of tear-jerking and cutesy, culturally relevant humor.
Yet “Onward” literally embodies the ever-present longing for a lost loved one, as Ian and Barley drag their father’s sentient legs with them on their search, with Ian hoping for one moment with the father he never knew, and Barley looking for closure.
If you can get over the sheer emotional terrorism contained in those legs, “Onward” is a fun romp with creative and clever world-building. Like any good adventure story, it’s clear that it’s never about the destination, but the journey itself.
Coming from the Pixar poignancy factory, it’s no surprise that “Onward” plucks the right heartstrings to produce many laughs, and many tears, too.
Starring: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt (voices)
Written by: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin
Directed by: Dan Scanlon Rated: PG
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes