The folks at Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios take their inner Dungeons & Dragons-playing nerd out for a walk in “Onward” (opening March 6), mixing sword-and-sorcery themes with the studio’s established gifts for clever humor and heart-tugging emotion.
“Long ago, the world was filled with wonder…” begins the movie’s narration, uttered by Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Chris Pratt), an oversized elf who knows by heart the history of dragons, wizards and other fanciful folk in New Mushroomton. But the creatures there now have freeways and cellphones and suburbia, so the magical arts are less important and largely forgotten to everyone except Barley.
When Barley’s timid little brother, Ian (voiced by Tom Holland), turns 16, their mom, Laurel (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus), gives them a gift left by their late father. Barley has some memories of Dad, but Ian, who was a baby when Dad died, has none.
The gift is a wizard’s staff with a magical Phoenix Stone, along with instructions for a spell that would bring Dad back to life for 24 hours. But when the Phoenix Stone disintegrates midway through the spell, materializing only Dad’s lower half, Barley convinces Ian to jump into his van and embark on an epic quest to find another Phoenix Stone and finish Dad’s materialization before the next sunset.
Director Dan Scanlon (“Monsters University”), co-writing with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, conjure up plenty of sharp gags about the intersection of the technological and magical worlds. For example, Barley declares the first stop on their quest should be the legendary tavern of the Manticore, a winged lion/scorpion beast — but the “tavern” now is a Chili’s-style family restaurant, and the once-fearsome Manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer) is stressed out by cash flow and a busted karaoke machine.
Like most Pixar movies, the humor is in the details in this world where dragons are pets, unicorns root through the trash, and a fast-food joint advertises “now serving second breakfast.” (That may not be funny to you, but my Tolkien-savvy brother would be laughing his head off.)
And, of course, “Onward” wouldn’t be a Pixar movie if there weren’t a few moments that made viewers well up with emotion — here, about grief, loss, an absent father and all-too-present brothers, along with a sly commentary on technology dulling our capacity to take in the magic around us. Luckily, Pixar’s brand of magic, blending computer animation with smart storytelling, remains as potent as ever.
Pixar’s latest adventure follows two brothers on a quest to meet their long-gone father, in a world where dragons and magic are real.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, March 6.
Rated • PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements.
Running time • 105 minutes.