How good is Pixar at making audiences cry in the last 10 minutes of a movie? So good that the studio serves up a moving finale to “Onward” when everything that comes before that ending has been rather spotty, particularly when compared to the studio’s greatest achievements.
It’s the same strategy behind a band saving its hit songs for the encore — make the audience leave on a high and they’ll forget the less successful parts — but while the film’s sentimental climax will have filmgoers walking into the lobby still dabbing away their tears, it doesn’t entirely expiate “Onward” of its many flaws.
The film is set in a world where magic once thrived, where pegasuses shared the sky with dragons while centaurs roamed the land. Then someone invented the light bulb, and the denizens of this reality decided electrical engineering was easier to learn than wizardry, and the old ways slowly disappeared. Cut to a modern world that looks a lot like ours, where nerdy high-school elf Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) is turning 16.
The occasion prompts Ian’s mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), to go to the attic to bring down a gift that her late husband, Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer), asked her to hold onto until Ian and his older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), came of age. It’s a magical staff and a gemstone, with a spell that will bring Wilden back to life for 24 hours. Barley, obsessed with role-playing games, tries and fails to make the spell work; Ian, it turns out, has magical abilities, but he hesitates and ends up bringing back only his dad’s legs. The brothers now have exactly one day to snag another magical gem to complete the spell, or they’ll lose any chance of a summoning their father.
And then we’re off on another madcap, ticking-clock Pixar plot, complete with car chases, scene-stealing bit players and a third-act argument between the two protagonists. Barley has been portrayed as a deadbeat and a layabout, but given the opportunity to embark on a real-life quest that doesn’t involve dice and figurines, he rises to the occasion, as does the timid Ian. Still, to get us to that lovely ending, “Onward” cheats a bit, withholding certain pieces of information until the 11th hour like a slapdash murder mystery.
Part of the problem with “Onward” is that director Dan Scanlon (“Monsters University”) and his co-writers Keith Bunin (“Horns”) and Jason Headley don’t seem to have fully thought out the logic of this once-magical world. Technology has replaced magic, sure, but why would fairies — who all have still have wings on their backs — ride motorcycles instead of flying? Why would pegasuses have been reduced to the equivalents of garbage-scavenging raccoons on our world?
Speaking of which, the biggest lapses of logic apply to Barley, who has a pegasus on the side of his van. (Which, again, would make more sense in our world than in his.) The character is presented as a D&D-playing, LARP-obsessed metalhead, but given that wizards and dragons were once a real thing in his world, wouldn’t it make more sense for him to be a history buff, Ren Faire, war-re-enactor type than someone lost in fantasy?
It also doesn’t help that “Onward” is one of the less attractive Pixar movies. The early nighttime sequences are set in places like parking lots, gas stations and theme restaurants (the latter once being the lair of a fearsome manticore, voiced by Octavia Spencer), but the movie never gives those quotidian locations the otherworldliness that the “Toy Story” movies did. And while the filmmakers deserve credit for not making the character design overly cute, they haven’t figured out a way to make these mythological creatures pop.
Still, even if the film lags narratively, there’s enough flash and dazzle to keep viewers engaged, with Holland and Pratt providing a genuine balance of sibling love and exasperation for each other. Younger viewers will giggle at the physical humor involved in a pair of disembodied legs running around on an adventure, but I would have loved one or two more scenes with Spencer’s manticore, a fearsome creature that has turned itself into, essentially, Regina Hall’s harried-manager character from “Support the Girls.” What’s there is choice, although Louis-Dreyfus’ singular skills as a performer get little room to blossom in her underwritten role.
In the final analysis, a let-down from Pixar still outshines another animation studio’s finest work, and if the people sitting around me at the screening I attended are any indication, the strength of the ending is enough to win over a good chunk of the audience. I couldn’t help wanting a little more magic from this movie set in a world where magic itself has fallen out of favor.