Onward (Photo: Disney-Pixar)

ONWARD
★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Dan Scanlon
STARS Tom Holland, Chris Pratt

Given the fact that four of the last five Pixar pictures have been sequels — the one exception was Coco, not coincidentally the best of that quintet — it now seems like a godsend whenever the studio actually releases something original. But that excitement is tempered with the realization that everything the outfit touches is no longer guaranteed to turn into gold.

Following one of the most remarkable winning streaks in cinema history, Pixar has had its ups and downs over the past decade, with only one instant masterpiece (Inside Out) and a handful of middling efforts (worst of all was The Good Dinosaur, so bereft of wit and wonder that it might as well have been made by one of those cheapjack outfits responsible for the likes of Delgo and Norm of the North).

Based on the trailer that only trafficked in hyperactivity, it was entirely reasonable to suspect that Onward might not possess enough of merit to crawl into the Win column. Happily, that’s not the case: While it certainly doesn’t rank in the upper echelons of the studio’s output, it’s an entertaining film that also manages to add a little tenderness to the treatment.

Onward is set in an enchanted land in which its citizens long ago gave up magic for such conveniences as light bulbs and automobiles. This means that their world looks just like ours, with a few notable exceptions — household pets are dragons instead of dogs, and trash cans are knocked over by unicorns rather than raccoons.

The story centers on a teenage elf named Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt), who love their supportive mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) but fiercely miss their dearly departed dad. Pop died of an illness around the time Ian was born, so the boy is naturally excited when, on his 16th birthday, he and Barley learn that their father has left them a magical staff that will allow him to return for exactly 24 hours. But the incantation goes awry and all that is conjured is his bottom half of his body. And thus begins the odyssey that will allow Ian and Barley to locate the stone required to see more than their dad’s pants and shoes.

Onward is the sort of quest tale that has powered many an animated effort, but writer-director Dan Scanlon and co-scripters Jason Headley and Keith Bunin find new ways to make the journey seem fresh. The dissimilarity between the siblings is expected (Ian is timid and responsible while Barley is boisterous and reckless), but what’s less anticipated is the level of commitment each displays toward the other, and how their symmetry ultimately defines the actions they undertake while on the road. The widowed parent has been part of a moldy tradition in animated features for decades (Disney especially loved killing off a parental unit, usually the mother), but whereas that character has generally been relegated to the background, this one refuses to get left behind. Once the boys’ mom realizes that they’re gone, she hits the road in pursuit, ultimately teaming up with a manticore (Octavia Spencer) who herself is on a mission to reclaim her former glory. And the film’s climax doesn’t unfold quite like viewers might expect. Instead, it provides a different sort of self-sacrifice than the type we usually receive in adventure yarns.

Certainly, the movie can’t completely break away from a sense of déjà vu, as there are many moments that can’t help but stir memories of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Harry Potter saga, and even Raiders of the Lost Ark. But the poignancy of the family drama — between the brothers even more than between the parents and their children — rings true, signaling that Pixar still retains the ability to conjure up genuine emotions when the muse strikes.

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