Review: Pixar’s Latest, Onward Finds Adventure, Humor and Heart in a Fantasy World

Before I dive into the latest Pixar film, Onward, I just noticed in looking at the cast list that Julia Louis-Dreyfus voices a character named Laurel Lightfoot, which is a bizarre coincidence for those of us living in Chicago right now. The fact that Louis-Dreyfus has roots at Northwestern and Second City only drives the coincidence home further. Alright, enough side notes.

Onward begins with a look back in history—not our history, but the history of a fantasy world where all manner of mermaids, unicorns, elves, fairies, minotaurs, wizards, and just about any other creature you might find in a role-playing game would exist. But as these fantasy beings find shortcuts to doing magic—Why use your wings to fly when you can board an airplane? Why use a spell to start a fire when you can use matches?—they become lazy, and the magic that made them special starts to disappear from the world at large.

Image courtesy of Pixar

Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) Lightfoot are two young elf brothers who grew up together with their father, who died just before the younger Ian was born and when Barley was still a young elfling. Their mom (Louis-Dreyfus) has done a tremendous job raising them, but that hasn’t kept Ian from being frustrated at not having a dad. He lacks confidence, doesn’t have a lot of friends, and he thinks having a father in his life might have changed that. Barley is a bit of a lovable lug who knocks over everything in his path, tries to stay connected to the magical world through role-playing games, and drives a wildly detailed van named Guinevere that he refers to as his “mighty steed.”

When Ian turns 16, his mom gives him a secret present from his dad —a wizard’s staff that includes a built-in spell that will bring his father back for 24 hours. But when Ian botches the spell halfway through, only his father’s legs appear to him, very much alive and communicative—but without ears or eyes, it has a limited range of capabilities without a lot of guidance. Ian figures out that he needs something called a Phoenix crystal to complete the spell, and Barley considers the search for it the inspiration he’s been waiting for to embark on a brotherly quest that ends with Ian spending a day with his dad that he’s always dreamed of. For Barley, it’s a chance to rediscover the magic that still exists in their world.

Director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) has crafted what might be Pixar’s purest adventure film, and he and his team have filled it with laughs, action and a great deal of creativity. I especially like Octavia Spencer’s beastly creature known as The Manticore, who seems composed of various scary animals—lion and scorpion, among others—and once had her day as the most feared and respected creature in the realm, but now manages a theme restaurant. There’s also a very funny sequence involving Ian and Barley getting pulled over by two police officers voiced by Lena Waithe and Ali Wong. But between the laughs, Onward does do what Pixar does best, which is find the emotional core of its story—in this case, that involves the audience realizing that the film isn’t about a boy’s long search for his father. It’s about a kid realizing that the male role model in is life has actually done a pretty great job looking out for him all of these years. And if you have a sibling in your life that you’re particularly close to, you are likely going to cry like an infant.

Onward also deals with issues of bullying, searching for your inner strength and confidence, and how real magic sometimes comes from believing you can do something, even if you can’t. It sounds corny, and it is sometimes, but the energy that Holland and Pratt bring to these characters, and the way they sell their lifelong bond, is genuinely moving. The sometimes-manic performances carry over into the pacing of the film, which can be, at times, exhausting. But Onward finishes strong with a standoff between our heroes and a really interesting visual take on a played-out creature in need of conquering. So while much of the film is hit and miss at times, the final act delivers on its emotional impact and brings all things to a satisfying conclusion. Geared toward a slightly younger, but still emotionally mature, demographic, the movie douses itself in color and imagination, with a healthy dose of enthusiasm to win the day.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.