It's always a little more difficult to identify with animated characters, particularly if they don't look like us.  But “Onward” is charming enough to make us root for the modern teenage brothers, even if they are descendants of elves.

            We begin with a voiceover about how the world used to be more magical and mystical, even adventurous and dangerous, until suburban living successfully smoothed out all the rough edges.  Creatures with wings didn't need to fly anymore; they had transportation that didn't require effort.  Minotaurs could ride in cars.  Fairies could ride little motorcycles instead of using their wings.  Even the fierce Manticore (Octavia Spencer) was reduced to spending all her energies running a theme restaurant that had devolved from the adventurous to the insipid.

            As for the brothers, the older one, Barley (Chris Prat) is enjoying a “gap year,” where he essentially hangs around the house and plays his fantasy game, involving wizards and spells and a seemingly endless array of magic trivia.  The younger brother, Ian (Tom Holland), is just turning 16, but he obviously lacks social skills, and also can't bring himself to be confident enough to even learn to drive.  It seems that he gets too nervous trying to navigate the on-ramps of highways.  Barley, for his part, fears nothing, and he's also loud, brash, boisterous, and quickly developing a reputation as a slackard.  He drives an old van which he's named Guinevere, which he envisions as his legendary winged unicorn.  Their Mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is kindly and supportive to both boys, but she can't bring back their Dad, who died so young that Ian doesn't remember him at all, and Barley only a little.

            The scenario changes quickly when Laurel brings out a gift which she's kept all this time, which the boys' Dad wanted her to give them when they were both past 16.  It turns out to be a wizard's wand, complete with an incantation that would bring Dad back for a day.

            Well, the magic gets muffed, and Dad winds up being just a pair of pants.  At least until the boys can locate the other precious gem that activates the wizard's wand.  That launches them on a quest through the countryside, where they experience unique adventures, which finally lead them....back where they started?  Yes, part of the point is that you don't have to be someone you're not in order to “find yourself.”  But you do need to learn to tap into those things that are already within you, like courage, and confidence, and wait for it......a little love for those around you.

            Yes, it's just emotional enough to help us connect with the characters, but it's a fun action/adventure, as well, complete with fire-breathing dragons and secret codes and hidden keys.  You'll even get used to the idea of Dad as traveling pants.  It's certainly a unique creative effort, and is suitable for all ages, but especially the ones who delight in the magical and whimsical.


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association