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* * * * (out of four)

After starting out with an (ahem) incredible 11 perfect movies in a row, Pixar has spent the last few years alternating between great (“Coco,” “Inside Out”) and merely okay (“Cars 3,” “Toy Story 4”).

With “Onward,” this studio is back in the realm of the good and the great; it’s the best thing they have done in years.

Unfortunately, the bland previews don’t provide much sense of how clever it is, how exciting, how funny -- and in the end, how deeply moving.

“Onward” is set in another world (cued by the fact that it has two moons). It’s a place that was once full of magic and is still peopled with mythical creatures: elves, fairies, cyclopes, unicorns, dragons and so forth. But the magic is largely gone -- replaced by the easier-to-use technology of our own world.

The plot focuses on Ian Lightfoot, an elf who lives with his mother and older brother, Barley; Dad passed away some years ago. On his 16th birthday, Ian receives a long-hidden gift from his father: a magic staff that will enable the boys to resurrect their much-missed parent in bodily form for one whole day. But due to a mishap in casting the spell, only part of Dad appears: the bottom half, complete with belt, pants, shoes and his infamous purple socks.

And so, thanks to Barley’s ongoing obsession with past magic, the boys go charging off after materials to complete the spell.

But they’ve got only 24 hours.

“The quest” usually makes a reliable plot-hook, especially when it’s joined to a buddy movie in which two misfits must learn to get along. The brave, bold Barley has a bad reputation as a trouble-maker, and his contrastingly timid younger bro doesn’t trust him; plus, Ian himself will have man up and take some chances.

The screenplay ramps up their journey with considerable suspense and comedy -- much of the latter just child-like silliness with Dad’s lower-half flopping and gyrating all over the place. It’s amazing how much laughter the movie generates from this simple gag. There’s some funny business with motorcycle-riding pixies and a fine drawbridge scene that effectively mixes tension and theme.

But “Onward’s” triumph is its ending.

This movie 100% does not go where we expect it to; yet somehow, it manages to be even more satisfying than we could’ve hoped. The exhilarating climax, with an angry manticore, a magic sword, a giant rock-dragon and Mom-to-the-rescue, is followed by a resolution of the missing-dad plot that is breathtaking in its fitness and closure.

The film also boasts a wonderful musical score and fine voicing (Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer) -- the latter aided by excellent work with facial expressions.

And that includes the smile you’ll have on your face as the credits start to roll.


directed by Dan Scanlon

Run time: 102 min.

Rated PG

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