In “Onward,” Tom Holland and Chris Pratt provide the voices of Ian Lightfoot (left) and Barley Lightfoot, teenage elf brothers who go on a mission to resuscitate their dead father (right). (Disney/Pixar)

In “Onward,” Tom Holland and Chris Pratt provide the voices of Ian Lightfoot (left) and Barley Lightfoot, teenage elf brothers who go on a mission to resuscitate their dead father (right). (Disney/Pixar)

Pixar’s enduring movie magic takes a road trip in ‘Onward’

This outing falls just short of the studio’s best work but it still casts a spell.

Pixar has given the world many indelible images since the first “Toy Story” movie in 1995. I guess we can add “the gelatinous cube” to the list.

How Pixar’s “Onward” gets to the cube is part of the movie’s road trip. But there’s little question this film will makes its cultural impact, just like the company’s previous efforts.

The story is set in a world vaguely like our own, although the characters tend to resemble rejects from the “Shrek” franchise. Teenage nerd Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) lives with his widowed mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and older brother Barley (Chris Pratt).

A magic wand summons up the ghost of Ian’s dad, but a glitch in the mechanism brings only dad’s lower half. This means that through most of the movie, dad appears as a jaunty pair of trousers, a weird idea that the film somehow gets away with.

In the manner of such spells, this one lasts 24 hours. So Ian and Barley quickly take a road trip to find the magical whatsis that will complete dad’s outline, if only briefly.

This appeals greatly to Barley, a Dungeons & Dragons type who knows everything about magic and incantations and ye olde lore. When the boys hop into Barley’s van, their trip becomes a mythical quest, even if it’s only a pop over into the next county.

The idea behind “Onward” — written by Jason Headley, Keith Bunin and director Dan Scanlon — is that the world was once full of actual magic, with unicorns flying around and houses carved out of giant mushrooms (I think that’s what those are).

Gradually, the magic disappeared when logic and science took over. These days, the flying unicorns are nosing around in overturned garbage cans. So the Lightfoot brothers’ journey is a nostalgia trip back to a simpler era.

I think this might be one of the reasons I didn’t love “Onward” the way I love “Up” or “Toy Story 4.” There’s something about its concept that feels a little screwy — or maybe it’s just personal preference. I’ll take science over magic any day, so the film’s wistfulness about a past age of dragons is a matter of taste.

The character design may be a matter of taste, too. This is a curious collection of lumpy-looking fantasy-world figures, vaguely half-beast and half-elf. Let’s just say I got used to them after a while.

The ingratiating vocal performances from Pratt and Holland (deftly leaving behind their Marvel personas as Star-Lord and Spider-Man) help the cause. If not everything in the film is absolutely 100%, at least these two bros carry the load.

Pixar still has its mojo, which becomes clear in the film’s final minutes. It all comes down to connection, sacrifice and a reunion discreetly glimpsed from afar. As usual with Pixar, there’s life wisdom in “Onward” that seems far above the level of a feature-length cartoon, the kind of thing (along with the occasional gelatinous cube, of course) that makes you grateful for these movies.

“Onward” (3 stars)

In a screwy world of elf-like people and lost magic, two nerdy brothers (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) go on a quest to complete a spell that could bring back their father. This Pixar outing doesn’t have the greatness of some of their other titles, and the characters are frankly pretty weird to look at, but it builds to an ending that delivers unexpected life wisdom.

Rating: PG, for violence

Opening Friday: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Edmonds Theater, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Meridian, Oak Tree, Seattle 10, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Blue Fox Drive-in, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor Plaza

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