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‘Onward’ Doesn’t Hide the Fact That It’s a Tearjerker for Parents

And for that, the new Pixar movie is easier to take in stride

Pixar/Ringer illustration

“That’s terrible,” mutters the woman sitting to my right with genuine admiration and emotional investment, wiping away tears as the inevitable dead-father-based Sad But Beautiful Thing happens at the climax of the new Pixar movie Onward. “Dad, I’m finished with this,” says my 6-year-old son sitting to my left shortly thereafter, handing me his box of popcorn, seemingly oblivious to the larger implications of the Sad But Beautiful Thing but still very much enjoying himself.

Yes, it’s time once again for a new Pixar movie, sure to leave children delighted and their parents crushed half to death by exquisitely rendered ennui. I cried a little this time, but not nearly as intensely as I’d feared; the 6-year-old agreed with his 8-year-old brother that the best part was the giant rock dragon’s funny eyebrows.

Directed by Pixar vet Dan Scanlon (this relatively personal and modest film is his reward, perhaps, for helming 2013’s brand-managing sequel Monsters University) from a script he cowrote with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, Onward is the tender tale of two young elf brothers trying to resurrect their late father with a magic spell. Take a few minutes to compose yourself. The younger elf, Ian (voiced by Tom Holland), spends part of his 16th birthday gazing lovingly at the spinning reels of a cassette tape labeled “DAD” that preserve just a few random, jolly phrases spoken by the father who died before he was born. Ian even carries on a cute little one-sided conversation with that disembodied voice. Take a few more minutes.

As for Ian’s older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), a misunderstood town pariah tooting around in a ’70s-style airbrushed-unicorn van and languishing in what their lovingly exasperated mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) calls “the longest gap year ever,” he has only a few memories of his father, the last one involving Dad connected to a bunch of tubes. The eventual Sad But Beautiful Thing partly involves the cute lists Ian makes of things he’d love to do with their dad: “Play catch,” “Take a walk,” “Heart-to-heart,” “Share my life with him,” etc. Oof, sorry, I got something in my eye again. Take the rest of the day off.

This is Pixar’s 22nd feature film, and a base level of high quality—along with a reliably self-abasing high quantity of Feels—is of course assured. As a parent, you don’t walk into these movies worrying they’ll be bad, but fearing that you’ll stagger out of the theater too emotionally annihilated to drive your (satisfied, oblivious) children home. Onward is nowhere near the best Pixar movie (Coco) and comfortably far from the worst (Cars 3); it is nowhere near the most emotionally annihilating (Inside Out) but uncomfortably far from the most serene (Cars 3). To say that this movie could’ve feasibly premiered on Disney+ with no theatrical release at all sounds like an insult but isn’t; it has a humble visual style and a mercifully light touch given the explicit Late Dad Content. It’s a kinder, gentler approach to the sneak-attack weeper, in that it’s not sneaking around at all.

Onward is set in a sort of suburban-fantasy hybrid where magic exists but mostly everyone’s too jaded to believe in it. Magic, indeed, has been supplanted first by the invention of electricity (two robed wizards conjuring helpful fireballs are alarmed by the discovery of the light bulb) and eventually by much darker forms of technology. (There’s a quick, startling shot of a mermaid languishing in a kiddie pool while staring at her smartphone.) Unicorns still exist, but they mostly just root through people’s trash. Ian’s own phone screen is conspicuously smashed to bits just as he and Barley are contending with the magic staff Dad arranged to serve as a 16th-birthday present; the brothers use that staff to bring Dad back to life for only 24 hours, though by accident only his bottom half, which means he’s basically a walking pair of pants.

It will sound implausible—and yet, given Pixar’s sterling track record, you’ll believe it—when I tell you that the “walking pair of pants” aspect of this movie is surprisingly emotional. Dad is sentient even if he can’t hear/say anything, and he communicates with his sons by tenderly tapping on their feet with his own. Halfway through the movie, during a low moment at a deserted highway rest stop (sure), father and sons have an impromptu power-metal dance party, the effect legitimately balletic and awfully sweet. Dad’s silly purple socks only heighten the tenderness. Oof. Oof. Oof.

For indeed, by that point, Ian and Barley have thrown Half-Dad in the airbrushed unicorn van and gone on a quest: head to the Manticore’s Tavern, collect the Phoenix Gem, beware the acid-spewing gelatinous cube (my 6-year-old didn’t care for it), etc. Flashy car chase with some sassy motorcycle-gang pixies too timid to fly; gentle lessons imparted (“Hey—you can do this”) when crossing the invisible bridge you can only walk across if you believe it exists. Octavia Spencer voices the Manticore, a mythical beast reborn as a harried restaurant hostess; Mel Rodriguez voices Mom’s centaur-cop boyfriend, whose dad jokes I found a little too relatable. Climax: giant rock dragon (whose furrowed eyebrows were indeed delightful) followed by the Sad But Beautiful Thing, which delivers less wish fulfillment than expected.

If we’re ranking these movies by emotional devastation as opposed to overall quality, Onward is heavier than Toy Story 4 but doesn’t quite manage the (surprise) gut punch of the trash-incinerator scene in Toy Story 3. This is a compliment, or in any event it’s a relief. At the gnarlier end of the Pixar spectrum—seriously, Inside Out, via Goofball Island and Bing Bong, depicted the near-literal death of childhood—I’ve struggled with the reality that I’m essentially sitting in an entirely different theater than my sons, that they might as well be watching The Secret Life of Pets 2 while I might as well be watching The Invisible Man. The heaviness of Onward is not subtext, or terribly hard for a young child to grasp: At one point we watch a father literally dissolve mid-hug with his son. My own sons took that moment in stride, and at the time, I was too surprised at how well I myself was taking it to take that personally.