Pixar has long been a master of ‘what if?’ worldbuilding. But with Onward the beloved animation studio has come up with its neatest high concept yet: a fantastical planet populated by elves, fauns, centaurs and goblins, who centuries earlier discovered that science offered a much easier and more reliable way to make the realm turn than spellcasting, and modernised itself into a world much like ours today, where the magic has faded.
Although it hasn’t entirely faded, as nervy teenage elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) discovers on his 16th birthday, when he and his unflappable older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) are gifted a sorcerous staff that will bring back their deceased father for 24 hours. However, thanks to a malfunctioning “phoenix gem”, they only resurrect Dad from the waist down, sparking a madcap quest (with their half-dad in tow) to bring him fully back for a father-to-sons catch up before time runs out.
For anyone who’s ever played Dungeons & Dragons, or classic fantasy board games like Talisman and HeroQuest, Onward is packed with inventive delight. Barley is irrepressibly obsessed with a swords-and-sorcery tabletop role-playing game called Quests of Yore, which of course in his world is “historically accurate” rather than fantastical. His head is filled with nerdy knowledge of spells, monsters, traps and a sense of how fantastical quests are supposed to unfold, allowing director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) and his writers to riff on and revel in fantasy tropes. Role-playing and board-gaming parents (and older kids, no doubt) will, for example, thrill at the inclusion of such lesser known monstrosities as the manticore (part lion, part bat, part scorpion) and the gelatinous cube, which oozes along dungeon corridors, swallowing up adventurers and digesting them within its transparent gloop.
Meanwhile, the half-dad is far more than a weirdo plot device. He is a fully-fledged sidekick character and the conduit for some fantastic, silent, slapstick comedy, feeling his way around feet first and struggling to hold his (half-)own during all the story’s high-speed action sequences, which include a freeway chase involving pixie Hell’s Angels and a run through a deadly-trap-filled gauntlet.
Yet Pixar is renowned for much more than its savvy worldbuilding, comedic inventiveness and action thrills. The studio also really knows how to tap deep into universally relevant emotional themes, often to a tear-inducing degree. With director Scanlon drawing from his personal experience as a younger brother with an absent father (his father died when he was only a year old), the film feels as emotionally honest and raw as any based-on-fact live-action drama. Onward’s greatest strength is in the relationship between Ian and Barley, brought to life via a pair of superb vocal performances by Marvel Cinematic Universe regulars Holland and Pratt (aka Spider-Man and Star Lord). They are very different to each other — Ian lacks self-confidence, while Barley possesses it to a fault — but pull together when it matters in a way that feels true to their characters, rather than necessitated by the plot or the need to serve up a family-bonding moral. It is, essentially, a non-mawkish celebration of sibling love, and it’s through its sheer, heartstring-strumming relatability that Onward becomes truly magical.
Is Onward a Good Movie for Kids?
Are you kidding? It’s Pixar, so being good for kids is in Onward’s cinematic DNA. That said, it’ll probably be better enjoyed by children in the middle-grade range (ie eight and upwards), who will be more likely to get the jokes and references, and handle the monster-induced jeopardy. It also skews more ‘boy’ than ‘girl’ — although, honestly, the fact that it’s a story about brothers shouldn’t shut anybody out, whatever gender they or their siblings (assuming they have any) are.
Dan’s son Max (aged 10) says:
“I really liked how the Dad’s legs were actually a character, and the gelatinous cube was great.”