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'Onward' review: Weird story made tolerable by moments of humor and pathos

In Disney and Pixar's "Onward," two teenage elf

In Disney and Pixar's "Onward," two teenage elf brothers embark on an extraordinary quest in a van to discover if there is still a little magic left in the world.  Credit: Pixar/Disney/Pixar

PLOT Two suburban teenage elves search for the magic that will bring their dead father back to life.

CAST Voices of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Octavia Spencer

RATED PG (some rude humor)


BOTTOM LINE A slightly weird story, made tolerable by moments of humor and pathos.

Ancient magic has faded from the modern world in "Onward," Disney-Pixar's latest animated adventure. Elves, fairies and centaurs still walk the land, but they've settled for the mundane comforts of fast food and television. Imagine if Middle Earth turned into Middle America. Nevertheless, two teenage suburban elves, Ian and Barley Lightfoot, discover a wizard's staff that allows them to summon the spirit of their dead father for one day.

Make that half their father — all they can conjure is the legs. Now, with a 24-hour clock ticking, the brothers must find the gemstone that will allow them to complete the spell.

Got all that? "Onward" may take its title from the mantra writer-director Dan Scanlon ("Monsters University") and his co-writers must have adopted during the writing process. So what if the idea of disembodied legs running through suburbia makes no sense? Onward! In the end, the movie gets by on the strength of some clever humor and a whopping dose of pathos.

Aside from being slightly greenish elves, the Lightfoot siblings make an odd pair: Ian (Tom Holland), a gangly and shy 16-year-old, and the older Barley (Chris Pratt), a denim-clad headbanger who drives around in a beat-up van. In another movie, his van would be filled with clouds of bong-smoke, but Barley is even nerdier than Ian, a fantasy-game aficionado given to speaking in Arthurian English. Because of his research into spells and incantations, Barley is able to guide Ian to spots in their hometown of New Mushroomton that still vibrate with mystical power.

The movie stumbles around a bit like dad's legs — a visual that looks weirder than the filmmakers perhaps intended — but there are occasional bright spots. One is Olivia Spencer as the voice of The Manticore, a once-mighty winged creature who now runs a cruddy theme restaurant. Another is Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the siblings' mom, Laurel, who is dating the world's un-sexiest centaur, Colt Bronco (a middle-aged cop with the voice of Mel Rodriguez). Among the best running jokes are the unicorns that now resemble feral raccoons digging through trash and hissing at passersby.

"Onward" feels like a crazy-quilt of ideas, but in its final moments, only the grouchiest viewers will remain dry-eyed. Even in an awkward movie like this one, the Disney-Pixar magic still works.

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