For a revolutionary animation studio, Pixar has been surprisingly wary of advancing technology. The company may be at the forefront of digital animation, but for 25 years, its spiritual DNA has been decidedly nostalgic. It’s the old-school new school.
In “WALL-E,” high-tech humans have devolved into overweight TV addicts who need to be jarred out of their stupor. In “Monsters Inc.,” modern kids have grown too blase to be scared by monsters, prompting a scream shortage. “Cars” preached small-town, off-the-beaten-track values.
Pixar’s latest, “Onward,” goes even further. “Long ago, the world was full of wonder,” a narrator introduces. There were magical creatures like trolls, gnomes, elves and dragons with special powers. But the drumbeat of progress, from light bulbs to airplanes to smart phones, has steadily sapped all the fantasy from life. In New Mushroomton, a Los Angeles-like sprawl of suburbs and freeways, those once magical creatures live an orderly and predicable life much like our own, just with unicorns always getting in the trash and pixies that ride in biker gangs.
The set-up is quintessentially Pixar, even if “Onward” — with its blueish, pointed-eared elves in flannel shirts and ‘70s-style anthems — nearly resembles Pixar’s answer to prog rock. This is one of the studio’s odder looking films, one that owes much more to Dungeons & Dragons and the rock-geek exuberance of Jack Black than your typical animated feature.
“Onward,” written and directed by Dan Scanlon (“Monsters University”), may initially be a tough sell, and it’s not a movie likely to immediately rise to the top of everyone’s Pixar’s rankings. (“Ratatouille” forever.) But its eccentric odyssey of two brothers delving into a fantastical past to find their way through grief and self-doubt is a worthy addition to the studio’s canon. Its world is a little incongruous (one wants to unsee the centaur police officer), and the movie’s depiction of death isn’t so well honed as it is in, say, “Up” or “Toy Story 3.” But “Onward” makes the most of its strange assemblage to tell a sweet and moving story — enough so to leave you yet again shaking your head at Pixar’s magic act.
Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) is an elf in high school with typical teenage problems. He’s turning 16, a passage into young adulthood that for Ian is filled with angst and anxiety. His lack of self confidence is only the more worrisome to him when he hears that his late father, whose death came before Ian was born, was an impressively “bold” man. Ian makes a “new me” list with the entry: “Be more like Dad.”
He lives with his mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt). Barley drives a beat-up purple van with a winged horse decal and a cassette-tape deck; he’s nicknamed the van Guinevere. (You will leave “Onward” swearing that someone owes Jack Black money.) Clad in a denim vest and spiked wristband, Barley doesn’t appear headed toward grand success in life, but he’s an affectionately enthusiastic brother to Ian and a young man with passionate tastes. He’s an aficionado of the role-playing game Quest of Yore, and an ardent defender of artifacts from the past. To stymie developers, he melodramatically chains himself to magical relics.
The adventure of the movie kicks off when Ian opens a gift left for him by his father (voiced by Bryan Cranston): a staff and spell that will bring Ian’s dad back for a day. Ian only half finishes the trick: His father returns as just a pair of slacks and dress shoes. In a race to beat the next day’s sunset, the kids tow their half-formed father on an odyssey in search of a crystal for another chance at the spell.
A pair of elves with a half-resurrected dead dad is, unquestionably, esoteric territory for even Pixar. When Ian gives him a pillow torso, shirt and shades, the effect is a little like “Weekend at Bernie’s.” And yet, “Onward” still works. As they hunt from place to place, the elves' quest reawakens long dormant pools of magic. Pressured by insurance companies and Yelp reviews, a manticore (Octavia Spencer) begins to question turning her lair into a TGI Fridays-like restaurant.
In a series of such encounters, Ian gradually grows more courageous; the movie isn't as unconventional as it seems. But “Onward” pivots, movingly. It turns out to be more about brotherly love than anything else. As a Pixar entry, it may be the first to explicitly grapple with not the trials of childhood, but the fraught onset of adulthood. Either way, by the time “Onward” has wrapped its journey, it will probably be the only movie with a manticore to make you cry.
“Onward,” a Walt Disney Co. release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for action/peril and some mild thematic elements. Running time: 103 minutes. Three stars out of four.