Especially when compared to Pixar's best, there's definitely stuff to nitpick in the studio's latest, Onward. Fair? Maybe, but then again, even Pixar movies can have a hard time living up to Pixar movies.
But to focus on Onward's benign, minor missteps—none of which detract from the story's surprisingly emotional arc—is to miss the bigger picture. Instead of yet another Toy Story or Finding Nemo or Incredibles, Onward is fresh and original, and director and cowriter Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) revels in the chance to explore a new world.
That world is a fantasy one, with some modern twists: Elves, centaurs, fauns, pixies, and cyclopes (I looked that up) live side-by-side in a world that's not unlike our own, except the houses are shaped like mushrooms, skyscrapers look like castles, and Dungeons & Dragons is a historical role-playing game. The bright colors are vivid but warm, the character design is top-notch, and just about every frame is wonderful to look at, with an Arrested Development-level of lightning-quick sight gags: "Now serving second breakfast" reads the sign in front of Burger Shire.
Jokes are constant in Onward, but the story is a melancholy one: Two awkward, lovable, teenage elf brothers, Barley and Ian (voiced by Chris Pratt and Tom Holland), learn of a magic spell that, for a single day, can bring back their deceased father. Naturally, a quest of adventure and danger promptly ensues, but at its best moments, Onward digs into Ian and Barley's conflicting emotions, along with something nearly all of us know but rarely talk about: How the memory of an absent family member can hang over the lives of the living. Sometimes, that's comforting; more often, it fills even the most pedestrian parts of life with a sinking sense of loss.
As Ian practices his budding magical powers and Barley cheers him on, Onward moves around a lot, riffing on some fantasy tropes (a former adventurers' tavern is now a jaw-clenchingly awful family restaurant) while upending others: Ian and Barley's mother Laurel is voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, and she's just as great as you'd expect. By the time she begins a quest of her own—teaming up with a manticore with the voice of Octavia Spencer—Onward jumps at the chance to explore territory outside the traditional adventure arc. There are riddles and dungeon-crawls and heart-to-hearts, and even if the whole doesn't quite hold together, each of Onward's parts is entertaining and earnest enough to work on its own.
For a while there, Onward leans on its fantastical-but-familiar world. (My favorite bit might be that, to Ian and Barley, unicorns are essentially trash pandas, hissing as they knock over garbage cans.) But by the time Onward's skillful, moving climax rolls around, it's clear that the important things here aren't the magic spells or the long-lost maps. The important things are the fears and hopes of a sometimes strong, sometimes fragile family—one that's both held together and haunted by someone who's no longer there.