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February 22, 2020 by · Leave a Comment 

After turning out a plethora of sequels over the past several years, Pixar has returned this year with Onward, its first original-story film since 2017. And it has not lost the magic. Indeed, Onward has much to do with the loss of magic — and its rebirth. It is set in a fairy-tale land whose inhabitants include pixies, dragons, unicorns, cyclopses, satyrs, and a whole range of other creatures found in children’s’ storybooks and video games, but who now have evolved into a time similar to our own and have found that technology has made the magic that their forebears once practiced too demanding to bother with.

The film centers around two elf brothers, Ian and Barley Lightfoot, who seem to be polar opposites. Barley is fat, extroverted, fearless, and assertive. Ian is thin, painfully shy, timid, and awkward. What they have in common is that they are both utter screwups.

Their father died when they were small, and they have no memory of him. But on Ian’s 16th birthday, his mother presents him with a gift that his father had bequeathed to him on condition that he not open it until the day the two brothers are both 16. The gift is a sorcerer’s wand with a jewel attachment and a note saying that the gift could bring his father back to life for one day. But in Ian’s effort to employ the wand, the jewel shatters after bringing his father back to life only from his feet to his waist.

But brother Barley knows his magic history from role-playing videogames and he, Ian, and their half-father now embark on a quest to retrieve a similar jewel to complete the regeneration.

Director Dan Scanlon

At a news conference following the screening of the film at the Berlin Film Festival, director Dan Scanlon said that he and producer Kori Rae began work on the film in 2013 with the idea of basing it on Scanlon’s own loss of his father as a toddler and his yearning to know more about him. Over the next six and a half years, he said, he and Rae worked with more than 300 writers, animators, and actors to create a film that would touch adults and children alike.

Judging from the reaction of most of those attending the press screening, they succeeded. Many in the audience could be seen wiping away tears as the film’s closing credits rolled. Kevin Maher in the Times of London commented that it was “painful” to watch — “but in the best way.” To him, the movie was “transcendent, cathartic, [and] structurally smart.” Likewise, James Mottram in the South China Morning Post called it “very funny but also touchingly sentimental” and concluded, “Whatever you believe about magic, Onward proves it still exists on the big screen.”

However, other critics were apparently untouched by the magic. Tim Grierson, in the British trade publication Screen Daily, remarked that the film “lacks much of the wonder of [Pixar’s] past films.” Similarly, David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter commented that while Onward amounts to “perfectly agreeable entertainment for many children,” it nevertheless “lacks infectious magic.” And Owen Gleiberman in Variety appeared to dismiss the film as just “an unabashed piece of product.” Nevertheless, even he concluded, seemingly reluctantly: “By the end of Onward, you’ll have chuckled and maybe choked up, and enjoyed a conventional ride. ” But David Sims in The Atlantic wrapped up his review with the hope that Onward becomes “a huge success at the box office, but more than that, I hope Pixar turns away from sequel projects and creates more original works like this one.”