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Onward and Upward ~ The Pantheon of Animation

Animated films often prove divisive among the movie-going public. Some see them as nothing more than a blend of catchy songs and silly characters. For this group, sitting through these films is done strictly as a service to their children. Others are able to overlook the childish presentation for what some (though certainly not all) animation offers, which is creative stories filled with imagination unparalleled to live action, as well as underlying themes that resonate with audiences. It's a shame, as there are wonderful animated stories in cinema that are walled off from a large portion of the public due to the format. This is a similar issue to what is often seen with foreign language films, with many being dismissed out of hand due to a presentation that includes the miniature barrier of subtitles. Fortunately, children often serve as a guide, subjecting adults to take part in these animated viewings and allowing them the opportunity to participate in an experience that may have otherwise been missed due to close mindedness. Onward serves as a prime example of this notion, presenting a magical animated adventure that possesses a fantastic screenplay, great voice performances, and a strong emotional through line.

Set in a suburban fantasy world, the story follows Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), two teenage elf brothers living with their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). On Ian's 16th birthday he receives a magic wand from his father who died when the brothers were very young. Aided with the wand, Ian and Barley set out on a quest to spend one last day with their father.

The greatest strength of Onward is without a doubt it's creatively layered story line. The airtight script bestows importance on each moment, building on everything that precedes it and culminating in a triumphant third act. The dual-pronged journey follows the brothers, as well as the mother, on their respective trips that each service the overarching narrative in their own way. There is no extraneous fat to the story, with numerous callbacks to prior scenes peppered in throughout. In lesser hands the plot could have been relegated to an abundance of amusingly disjointed scenes that combine for a fun time and nothing more. The original premise breathes new life into a well-worn fantasy adventure trope, modernizing the setting for comedic moments, as well as commenting on the effect of technology on society. The final climax goes on to deviate in a direction that is somewhat disappointing, but it still proves effective. This is a movie loaded with weighty themes and creative ideas, leaving the audience with the ability to delve deeper if they choose, or simply sit back and enjoy a humorous exploit filled with elves, magic, and action.

Additionally, the voice work from all involved is good, keeping the story engaging every step of the way. Tom Holland leads the charge with another splendid central performance (He was also great as the co-lead in Spies in Disguise a few months back FYI). Holland oozes youthful enthusiasm, allowing him to shine prominently in the leading role as a timid, yet hopeful adolescent attempting to grow into the shoes of the father he never knew. If he ever grows tired of his star making role as Spider-Man, he can rest easy knowing there will always be a career lane for him in voice acting. The same could likely be said of Chris Pratt, who is a joy to behold in the role of the older brother. His trademark goofy demeanor is coupled with shades of sincerity, resulting in a majority of the comedic moments. Rounded out by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Octavia Spencer in solid supporting roles, these four thespians successfully hold the spotlight from start to finish.

Overall, Onward is a merry fantasy road trip with relevant themes about fathers and brothers. It is a film brimming with heartfelt moments, humor, and originality. The story is more action packed and clever than overtly funny, but the intelligently crafted screenplay keeps the entertainment value high throughout. This is the rare animated film that, dare I say, can be enjoyed even more so by adults than children. I give it 4 out of 5 stars and recommend it fans of animation, or fantasy.


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