Grade: B/B+
Rated PG

So what happens to a “shire” when centuries of technology make magic obsolete, and the closest to it for modern-day elves and other residents in the city of New Mushroomton is some version of fantasy role-playing games? In Onward we find out, as a timid elf receives a time capsule present from his father, who apparently died of cancer years ago: a wizard staff.

Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) is unimpressed, but older obnoxious brother Barley (Chris Pratt), who’s totally into role-playing games, is delighted that his father was also into wizardry. Then they read a letter that was part of the parcel and discover a “visitation spell” that can bring their father back for one day, so Ian can meet him for the first time. But what happens when unconfident Ian botches the job and brings back only Dad’s bottom half? The elves have less than a day to find a gemstone that, added to the staff, will be powerful enough to bring back all of their father.

That’s the premise of Onward, which is directed by Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), and I found myself thinking of Back to the Future and Marty’s limited time to set things right, or else his family, the top halves of which are slowly vanishing on a photo he frequently looks at, will cease to exist. And of course there’s been no shortage of wizard-quest films with a single high-stakes prize the goal and all manner of obstacles en route, so Onward feels a bit commonplace in its premise and plotting.

We’ve gotten so used to Pixar’s “instant classics” that the expectation is there with every new title. When a release falls even a little short, as Onward does, it feels like a shock to the system. I mean, this is the studio that gave us the Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, Inside Out, Up, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, A Bug’s Life, and Monsters, Inc. So when we get technically accomplished films like The Good Dinosaur and Monsters University that somehow aren’t as compelling as the rest, your first reaction is surprise.

And Onward feels surprisingly familiar, given Pixar’s track record. That said, even a less-than-stellar release from Pixar is better than most animated films from other studios. Our family gave this one a solid B/B+.

Rotten Tomatoes gave it an even higher grade. As their “critics consensus” summary explains, “It may suffer in comparison to Pixar’s classics, but Onward makes effective use of the studio’s formula—and stands on its own merits as a funny, heartwarming, dazzlingly animated adventure.” I might add that it’s especially dazzling if you’re into fantasy role-playing games, as many of the RT critics seem to be.

Onward does carry on the Pixar tradition of creating interesting new worlds where visual delights appear in the background in almost every frame. It’s flat-out fun to look at, though some of the details will raise a few eyebrows. Example? The elf boys’ mom’s live-in boyfriend (Mel Rodriguez) is a police officer . . . and a centaur. Older kids may go “ewww” just thinking about how that plays out on a date, especially since a running gag has this cop forever fighting with his substantial horse’s rear-end. But the funniest scene is also a little “off,” as the The Manticore fantastic creature (Octavia Spencer) rediscovers a little magic of her own at her restaurant, and the boys’ mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) offers more proof that anybody’s mother is a formidable quester when her kids’ safety is at stake.

Finally, while Pratt makes his character almost a little too abrasive to be around, he softens a bit by the end of Act 2 just as the themes begin to warm hearts—as you’d expect from a Disney-Pixar film. Is the premise and plot familiar? Yes. But Pixar elevates the film with strong voice acting and solid artistic and set designs. It’s also that rare film, these days, that’s rated PG.

Entire family: Yes
Run time: 102 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Disney Pixar
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Amazon link
Rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements

Language: 1/10—A few unfinished “son of a . . . .” and that’s about it 

Sex: 0/10—Nothing overt

Violence: 3/10—A fantastic battle between a gigantic creature and our heroes plus car chases, a scary creature wreaking havoc in a restaurant, and other moments of questing peril

Adult situations: There’s some drinking of beer

Takeaway: While it’s not an “instant classic,” I suspect this film may grow on you; it’s certainly stronger than The Good Dinosaur or Monsters University.