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Onward review: D&D meets Weekend at Bernie's, and it's a critical hit

Pixar levels up in fantastic love letter to Dungeons and Dragons.

Moments after seeing Pixar’s Onward, I received a text from my sister that took the wind out of me. “You should visit dad,” it read. “He’s back at the hospital and not looking good.”

My father’s been ill for months. His doctors have performed endless tests and science is failing to figure out what’s wrong with him. There is no prognosis. Only negative results. Compounded by his old age of 79, he is breaking down before my eyes. I’m getting used to the idea that my parents, who already aren’t perfect, also aren’t invincible.

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He was doing better just a week ago at a senior rehab facility. But a fever spike brought him back to the hospital and into a windowless room where he loses sense of time. He gets cranky. He doesn’t eat. We got into a fight with his nurse the last time we were there. I was relieved when he left for rehab, a sign he was getting better and getting better treatment. But now he’s back at square one. My father returned to the states from the Philippines (where it’s a blistering 120 degrees every day; even this mild east coast winter activates his hypothermia) to see my sister’s firstborn, due in March. But now, we’re not sure what will happen first.

Onward, an original new Pixar adventure from director Dan Scanlon and writers Scanlon, Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, was an eerie movie for me to watch under such circumstances. It’s a story about elves who have smartphones, and yet it was the realest, rawest moviegoing experience that nearly broke me down.

In theaters March 6, Onward twists the Tolkienesque fantasy setting by replacing modernity over magic. Sure, you can cast fire with a wand, but it’s so much easier to have an electric stove. It’s a refreshingly novel idea that works all throughout the movie. Fast forward a few centuries later and the world of Onward — populated by elves, fairies, centaurs, wild unicorns, and goblins — looks so much like our own, with grocery stores, karaoke, DVD workouts, Yelp reviews, and bachelorette parties.

The movie stars Tom Holland as teenaged elf Ian Lightfoot, who on his 16th birthday, receives a gift from his late father: A magical staff and an ultra-rare Phoenix Gem. Using his new gifts to cast a spell, Ian and his brother Barley (Chris Pratt), a mythology-obsessed slacker, bring their father back to life for 24 hours. But the spell goes awry, forcing the brothers — and the moving legs of their semi-resurrected father — to embark on a quest to find another Phoenix Gem to complete the spell before time runs out.

In 'Onward,' brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) half-resurrect their father through a magic spell and race against the clock to finish it.Walt Disney Pictures

In a movie that affectionately juxtaposes Dungeons & Dragons with Weekend at Bernie’s, Onward is really a story about yearning. Ian wants so much just to talk to his father, who died too early for him to have any real memories. He finds comfort in engaging in a one-sided telephone conversation his dad recorded on an old cassette tape. He’s driven, not because he misses his father, but because he’s never made memories with him at all. How do you miss someone you’ve never met?

There’s a whole list of father-son moments Ian wants to cross off, and he’s racing against the clock.

In some abstract way, so am I. For 28 years my father was in and out of my life. He was never truly gone, but when your parents divorce before you’re in the first grade, it’s easy to take the precious time you do spend with them for granted. There’s a disconnect, an empty space when you don’t see the person who is your father be affectionate toward the person who is your mother. Instead, I grew up playing Pokemon in the backseat of strange women’s cars whenever I had a weekend with pops.

I haven’t seen or heard from any of those women since my dad was admitted to the hospital. And out of nowhere, I’m also up against a ticking clock, wrestling with potentially imminent loss and there’s no magic spell I know of that can stop it.

Onward is a very good movie, easily one of Disney/Pixar’s best since 2017’s Coco. However, I found it missing the same majesty of Coco, a sweeping tale about the complexly woven world of art, culture, and family (it rendered me a blubbering mess by the time “Remember Me” is sung). Onward shares some of the same ideas as Coco, but the fantastical setting doesn’t imbue it with the same significance as Coco’s immersion in Mexican cultural tradition.

Pratt’s Barley is obsessed with the magical heritage the rest of the world has forgotten, and he’s dismissed as a kook by everyone else for trying to preserve that history. It’s an admirable character trait, but because it’s a history that 1) never existed, and 2) has never been subject to imperial erasure, it’s hard to be completely sold on Onward’s messages of cultural preservation.

Thankfully, it’s in Onward’s emotional intimacy between two brothers and their father where the Pixar movie soars with some of the movie’s best. Stories about accepting family and never taking them for granted are Pixar’s sweet spot. (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up...)

Seeing Dungeons & Dragons through the Disney filter is also a treat. Onward takes place in its own setting, but it borrows enough D&D elements wholesale that Wizards of the Coast gets a big shout out in the credits.

Familiar D&D tropes get a hilarious makeover in 'Onward.' Walt Disney Pictures

Even if you’ve never rolled a d20 you’ll still “get” the movie’s toying with expectations. The gritty tavern run by a mythical Manticore, where all adventures begin, is now basically an Applebee’s; fairies move in packs of biker gangs; our heroes' noble steed is a crumbling van; weapons are bought at seedy pawnshops; and the local high school mascot is, you guessed it, the Dragons. The fun of this is all the richer if you’ve slayed an owlbear or two, but it’s not necessary.

Onward is another winner in the canon of Disney and Pixar. Tender and warm, funny and sweet, and yes, even heartbreaking, Onward is a fresh take on familiar fantasy storytelling with clever twists and a few heart-thumping thrills.

Can you miss somebody who was never really in your life? There’s an answer in Onward, I’m just replaying the movie in my head to finally find it.

Either way, I just know I have to see my dad.

Onward opens in theaters on March 6.

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