The closest thing Disney and Pixar have done to a Richard Linklater movie, the reliably appealing Onward is a study of sibling love carried out in an everyday elvish suburb. Technology shoved aside magic years ago. Middle Earth has gone downhill, with the high-tension power lines marching over the landscape of New Mushroomton. Burger Shire has a sign: “Now Serving Second Breakfast.” Diseased-looking unicorns are fighting over the trash cans, hissing like racoons.
It’s about 1975, if there’s a way to account for the cellphones: Big burly Barley (Chris Pratt does the voice) with his attempted beard, and his beat up van with Pegasus on it, complicates the life of his little brother Ian (Tom Holland) who has just turned 16. Barley has a headful of Magic the Gathering type lore, which he swears is all based on authentic historical events.
But there is some magic in the house. When their dad was dying of some terminal illness, he took up hobbies, as a dying person will, and he learned a spell that would bring him back from the grave for one day. He’s left his staff, rolled up in a blanket as a 16th birthday present for Ian.
The trick works. But it’s what the children’s book writer Edward Eager called “Half Magic”the father materializes only from the feet to the waist.
One eagerly awaits a good Freudian critique of this headless, pants-only dad. Still, the really worrisome part is the tone of this story; our bitterest tales of fantasy are about bringing someone back from the grave, and why it’s never to be done.
But director Dan Scanlon lets the kids believe: the boys’ all-night search for a phoenix stone takes them from lonely freeway underpasses and midnight gas stations up to to the stony mountains. Their mom’s cop boyfriend, a horse’s ass of a centaur named Officer Bronco, is in pursuit. The story gets a little shaggy when their mom, Laurel (Julie Louis-Dreyfus), and her new friend, a large and in charge manticore (Octavia Spencer) bring up the rear in a compact car.
If the gags aren’t always sublime, the observations are tender. Everywhere are fresh bits of business, such as the nonchalant reveal of a lesbian cyclops (Lena Waithe). The finale has a nice trickas cool or cooler as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man from Ghostbustersabout the frightening way 1930s “pie-eyed” school mascots look, as if these painted chimeras embodied all the terrors of high school.