‘Onward’ a step backward for Disney-Pixar

The story of elves, unicorns and disembodied legs starts out weird and just gets weirder.

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Tom Holland provides the voice of Ian, a teenage elf who misses his late father, in “Onward.”


We’re coming up on the 25th anniversary of “Toy Story,” Pixar’s first feature film — which turned out to be the first of many classics from the animation studio.

From the “Toy Story” sequels to “Finding Nemo” to “Wall-E” to “Inside Out” to “Up” to “Ratatouille,” Pixar has hit a high percentage of home runs and only a very few whiffs. (Hello, “Monsters University” and “Cars 2.”)

“Onward’ is the 22nd film from Pixar. Out of those 22, I would rank it ... 22nd.



Disney-Pixar presents a film directed by Dan Scanlon and written by Scanlon, Jason Headley and Keith Bunin. Rated PG (for action/peril and some mild thematic elements). Running time: 102 minutes. Opens March 5 at local theaters.

The story fluctuates between the uninspired and the just plain weird — and then gets even weirder. It’s too basic and familiar to keep parents and older children consistently entertained, and too trippy and existential for the little ones.

Put it this way: Do YOU want to explain to your kids why, for most of the movie, two brothers are dragging around the bottom half of their dead dad, who has re-materialized from the waist down and communicates with the boys with his feet?

It’s like an animated “Weekend at Bernie’s,” only with elves and just half the body.

“Onward” begins with an intriguing premise but doesn’t come close to fully fleshing out the possibilities. It takes place in a fantasy world that’s been drained of its magic as the inhabitants became increasingly dependent on technology, from the invention of the light bulb to smart phones. These days, unicorns are bedraggled creatures eating out of trash cans; sprites are nasty little buggers who ride miniature motorcycles due to the fact they can no longer fly; centaurs drive gas-guzzling cars because they can’t gallop half a block without running out of breath, and elves are just … well, people, except they have elf ears.

Tom “Spider-Man” Holland, fresh off voicing a wide-eyed, socially awkward, good guy in “Spies in Disguise,” plays a slightly younger, wide-eyed, socially awkward good guy once again. This time he’s one Ian Lightfoot, who has just turned 16 and lives with his goofy older brother Barley (Chris Pratt), who is obsessed with the magical past of his homeland, and their doting mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus).

Dad? Come on, this is Disney-Pixar. Dad’s dead. He croaked when Barley was just a little dude and Ian was a baby.

On Ian’s birthday, Mom presents them with a gift their father had left for them to open when they were old enough to handle it: a magic staff and crystal, complete with a spell that will bring Pops back to life for 24 hours.

Wait. What?

Barley tries to execute the spell again and again, but he has no real magic in him and nothing happens. Ah, but when Ian takes the staff, presto! Dad starts to materialize from the feet up — until the crystal explodes halfway through the spell, leaving their father as a sentient being complete with belted slacks and legs and shoes and socks.

And yes, a crotch.


When Barley (left, voice of Chris Pratt) and Ian (Tom Holland) attempt to resurrect their father in “Onward,” they get only his bottom half.


Off the boys and their half-dad go, on a dangerous and wacky quest to find another crystal so they can finish building their dad, or his spirit, or whatever it is, before the clock runs out.

Mom enlists the help of her police officer boyfriend, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), to track down the boys after she learns they’re in grave danger. (Sidebar: Colt Bronco is a centaur — man on top, horse on the bottom. Mom is an elf who appears to have human physical characteristics. I’m not sure about the future of that relationship. I mean, I’m not judging, but there would seem to be certain, um, challenges.)


Manticore (left, voice of Octavia Spencer) helps Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) find her sons in “Onward.”


And mom teams up with Manticore (Octavia Spencer), a docile dragon who has been running a family theme restaurant but is now getting her fire-breathing roar back. Oh, and the aforementioned sprites learn to once again spread their wings and fly, though they still sound like they’ve all inhaled helium and we’re supposed to find that funny.

As you’d expect from a Pixar movie, the visuals are consistently gorgeous. (The look of the original “Toy Story” blew us away in ’95, but if you viewed that movie and any recent Pixar film back to back, it’s clear great and wondrous strides have been made over the last quarter-century.) But while this is a good-looking animated story, it’s not in the same league as breathtakingly beautiful films such as “Finding Nemo” and “Up” and “Coco.”


Lena Waithe voices Officer Spector in “Onward.”


It should be noted the talented actress-writer Lena Waithe makes history as the first openly gay Pixar character: Officer Spector, a lesbian cop who also happens to be a purple cyclops unicorn. It’s an important step, but it’s a shame we don’t see more of this engaging, funny and warm character in the story.

She certainly seems more intriguing than the bottom half of a dead dad.

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