Movie Review: With “Onward,” Pixar takes a step backward

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There’s a warm emotional payoff at the very end — the VERY end — of Pixar’s latest, “Onward.” It’s about fathers and sons, father figures and brotherly love. And it’s about 90 minutes too late to save the movie.

We’ve already been through 90+ minutes of a mashup of every wizard, witch, magic and sorcery trope blended into a story of elvish teens trying to have one more conversation with their long-dead father. The ugly truth of their “quest” is there isn’t a laugh in it.

This may not be Pixar’s worst movie — anything with “Cars” or “Planes” (they try to deny the lineage of that “Cars” spinoff, not having it) in the title, or “Monsters University” own that label. But it sure feels like the weakest.

In a world where centaurs and trolls, ogres and elves, flying unicorns and fire-breathing dragons never went away, science and industry have made lives better and “the magic faded away.”

Ian, voiced by “Spider-Man” Tom Holland, is turning 16 — friendless, with a bucket list that includes making friends, learning to drive and the like.  Mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, but not that I could tell) dotes on him, worries about her boys growing up without a father.

But she’s dating a corny centaur cop (Mel Rodriguez). Older bro Barley (the unmistakable Chris Pratt) is a bit distracted, too. And an embarrassment. He’s “taking the world’s longest ‘gap year’ (as Mom puts it), and WAY too into role playing games like “Quests of Yore.” He swears that all this magic stuff in the games “really happened.”

Contrived plot point number one is their late father’s decision to leave them a present to open “when both of you are over 16.” It’s a wizard’s staff. Accountant Dad liked to dabble, apparently.

Super-enthusiastic Barley has this idea to bring Dad back though a “visitation spell,” but he can’t make the darned thing work. The staff, like a wand at Oleander’s wand shop at Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” choses who gets to use it. Ian it is.

Clumsy fan-boy Barley interrupts Ian’s version of the spell, breaks the staff’s “Phoenix Gem,” and darn it — Dad only half-materializes. They’ve got 24 hours to find another Phoenix Gem to get their brief reunion with the father Ian never met.

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They pile into Barley’s beater of a van and set off on their quest, stopping at The Manticore’s Tavern for directions. But it’s a theme-restaurant and the Manticore (I didn’t recognize Octavia Spencer‘s voice at all) is no longer the fearsome winged lioness of legend. She’s a restaurateur.

Style points to Pixar for casting potentially funny people in their leading roles. Major demerits for never giving them anything funny to play or say.

A manticore knocking back energy drinks? That’s all you’ve got for Oscar winner Octavia Spencer? Holland was a pointless expense for a blandly-written role any teen-to-20something could have played.

The animation’s good, lovely but not dazzling. There’s a spirited chase or two, not much payback for a movie that demands nearly two hours of your time. The best gags are the Harry Potter referencing stickers papering Barley’s van, “Gwinivere.” “Baselisk” is a band name in this universe. Disney’s still mad it didn’t get the Wizarding World?

A mock street sign sticker almost got a chuckle out of me — “None shall pass.” That’s a little “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” gag that the late Terry Jones would appreciate. John Cleese will.

Barley endlessly reciting spells he’s memorized, the “rules” of this one or that one, and delivering the picture’s overt message — “You have to take risks in life to have an adventure” — are no substitute for wit, originality or narrative drive.

You have to be very young to figure “Onward” has either of the last two. And even tiny tykes are unlikely to find this funny.

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MPAA Rating: PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements

Cast: The voices of Chris Pratt, Tom Holland, Julia Louis Dreyfuss and Octavia Spencer

Credits: Directed by Dan Scanlon, script by Jason Headley , Keith Bunin and Dan Scanlon.  Walt Disney/Pixar release.

Running time: 1:54

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