Processing grief means working toward acceptance, a profound acceptance that allows for forward movement. While keeping its grief in plain sight, Disney/Pixar's "Onward" also positions itself as a story about the spirit of limitless adventure, the lost wonder of childhood. In that respect, "Onward" embraces the paradox of recapturing what's been lost even as it insists on moving ahead.
"Onward" may repeatedly get behind trusting one's gut rather than being practical, but it's primarily interested in taking its premise to the benign territory of the inner child and the love of family. On his 16th birthday, teenage elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) can't help but yearn for the father who died before he was born. While older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) and mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), loved and lost Ian's father, all Ian has are photos and an old audio cassette recording, which he uses to synthesize a conversation with the man he never knew.
But Ian's birthday present turns out to be one heck of a gift from his father: a magical staff that, if properly outfitted, can be wielded to cast a visitation spell. Ian can bring his father back for one day, allowing for the bonding experiences of Ian's dreams. Lest it all be too easy, an interruption to the spell leaves Dad restored only from the waist down, forcing Ian and Barley on a quest to restore power to the staff. Off they go, with Laurel in loving pursuit, to finish the spell and bring back the rest of their late father (Octavia Spencer's manticore-in-midlife-crisis and Mel Rodriguez's centaur-cop Colt Bronco eventually join the chase).
It's all a lot more straightforward than it may sound, and wildly manipulative in its emotional underpinnings, but "Onward" works smart to earn its sentiment. The consistently clever screenplay director Dan Scanlon co-wrote with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin clearly lays out character dynamics ripe for triumph: Ian's angsty lack of confidence, Barley's reputation as a "screw-up," Laurel's largely untested "warrior" skills. One typically pithy scene employs a spell that requires truth-telling to yield empathy for one character (Colt, who's also Laurel's boyfriend) and stoke productive conflict between the brothers. There's colorful visual appeal in the film's highly detailed world-building (and the "Weekend at Bernie's"-style sight gags involving the boys' Dad-on-a-leash), ultra-expressive character animation to complement the fine voice cast, and there's even thematic synergy in the original score, composed by real-life brothers Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna.
All in all, "Onward" proves itself a very sweet and entertaining blend of whimsy and peril. The screenwriters act as robust dungeon masters, throwing up obstacles to overcome and gleefully biding their time to pay off a well-planned campaign, and at least one chase sequence had kids laughing in uncontrollable, full-throated hysterics for a solid 5 minutes. When they catch their breath from laughing, kids will walk away with the manticore's motto -- "You have to take risks in life to have an adventure" -- and a newfound appreciation for their families. Not bad for a couple of hours at the movies.