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For One Day With Dad: Onward

Updated on August 16, 2020


The Lightfoot brothers are polar opposites of one another. Older brother Barley is an elf that would rather play magic games than make any effort to practice that his late father knew to some extent. Younger brother Ian is a quiet high school student who prefers to keep to himself. A surprise on Ian's sixteenth birthday brings the brothers together in Onward. On that day, their mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) shows her boys a staff that belonged to her husband Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer), as well as a scroll with a spell Wil had written that, if successful, would bring him back to life for one day. Also included is one phoenix stone, which is essential for resurrecting him. Barley recites the spell without success, but when Ian tries, he brings back the bottom half of Wil. They then set out in search of another one of the rare gem.

Barley, knowing his game is based on actual spells, knows a place where they can get a map that will lead to another phoenix stone. The map is held by a creature known as The Manticore (Octavia Spencer), a former warrior who now owns a restaurant and is known simply as Corey. She sells them a souvenir map, not realizing the boys thought they were getting a genuine article. Laurel sees a note from the boys and pursues. She enlists the aid of Corey and Laurel's centaur boyfriend, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez) in an effort to get Barley and Ian safely home. Meanwhile, Ian tries other spells that don't all that work well while eluding angry pixie bikers, the police, and Laurel and Corey as they want to finish what they started.


Onward is, as of this writing, the last movie I was able to see in a theater before the COVID pandemic forced the cinemas to close. Even then, most people stayed away as concerns about the virus started to shut down the world we knew in early 2020. The movie itself is a pleasant and predictable adventure from director and co-writer Dan Scanlon, whose previous outing as director occurred with the 2013 film Monsters University. In Onward, Barley takes the lead on the adventure, though Ian wants to have a memory of seeing his dad - and not as half a man. Because each has a different type of knowledge, the boys must work together as they seek a second gem. While Scanlon has a different take on death, he does not handle the topic as well as either Up or Coco did. Without a voice, Wil has to communicate with his feet, but creates more moments of comedy than poignancy. I also found it odd that a studio like Pixar would bookend their movie with talk of magic falling out of favor as technology becomes more important in the world where the Lightfoots live. Fans would contend that magic and technology have worked together very well throughout Pixar history, including here.

The best part of the movie is the chemistry between Pratt and Holland in the leads. Barley is a good-hearted slacker who'd like Ian to make the effort to enjoy the good things that can happen as he grows into a young man. Barley can't be accused of being a good role model, with issues that include a glove compartment full of traffic tickets. This older brother compensates with a generous spirit and plans that advance their journey. Ian is a timid teen who can't find the right way to invite classmates to his birthday party, so he simply drops the matter. He talks to a recording of his dad as if the two were conversing. He does persevere with the magic, though, even though he accidentally shrinks Barley at one point. Barley's encouragement also helps him to emerge from his social shell. Spencer is fun as an entrepreneur who rediscovers her inner warrior. Rodriguez creates some laughs as Colt, the corny adult who tries too hard to connect with Barley and Ian. Louis-Dreyfus is fine as Laurel, but she shouldn't have been given the movie's straight role. Tracey Ullman has an amusing cameo as a pawn shop owner, and John Ratzenberger lends his voice to Fenwick, a construction worker whose job potentially interferes with the quest.


Life doesn't usually bring outcomes that people want. People just deal with the situations that come their way as best they can. Ian and Barley have gone though their young lives with only one parent and one adult who understands little about parenting. Onward is not Pixar at its best because it is decidedly formulaic. It's a satisfactory trip from Point A to Point B, but the magic that happens during the trip isn't as special as the bond that two brothers build that transcend either elfin magic or modern technology.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Onward three stars. A unique reunion.

Onward trailer

© 2020 Pat Mills


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