Directed by Dan Scanlon.
Featuring the voice talents of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Lena Waithe and Ali Wong.
Two elf siblings go on a quest to complete a magic spell that would allow them to see their deceased father one more time.
One of the many joys of Pixar is that they’re every bit as adept in their storytelling, regardless of style. There are complex, emotional stories of real invention like Inside Out, but also fairly straight-forward adventures including Brave and last year’s Toy Story 4. There may be less thematic complexity in the latter category, but Pixar’s Braintrust is able to inject emotion and nuance into even its most basic movies. It’s into this world that Onward lands – a magical journey with a warm, full heart and a colourful canvas.
Unsurprisingly given Disney’s high parental mortality rate, Onward focuses on a bereaved family – the Lightfoots. They’re elves who live in a world of magic, but one that has mostly shunned the fantastical because technology has made life far too convenient to go to the effort of deploying sorcery. Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is now a single mother to gawky teenager Ian (Tom Holland) and older magic obsessive Barley (Chris Pratt, channelling Jack Black from School of Rock). Their father died before Ian was born, so the very idea of a father resonates deeply with him, while Barley is the standard heavy metal, fantasy RPG bro with a denim jacket covered in patches advertising heavy metal bands.
On Ian’s 16th birthday, the brothers receive a gift pre-arranged by their father before his death – a magic staff with a spell that will bring him back to life for just 24 hours. When the spell inevitably goes wrong, the brothers embark on a road trip to find a magic artefact that will solve their problem. One of the triumphs of Monsters University director Dan Scanlon’s movie is that he elegantly interweaves impressive fantasy spectacle with intimate, personal family drama. For all of the colour and magic, it’s actually one of Pixar’s quieter movies, unafraid to sit still and let the characters fill the void.
This is helped, of course, by the natural chemistry between Holland and Pratt. The Marvel alumni are entirely believable in their roles, which each feel like dialled-up versions of their own natural personalities. When Holland’s character neurotically makes lists at every possible opportunity, or Pratt’s Barley scoffs cheese puffs for Dutch courage, it feels entirely natural for their well-sketched characters. Louis-Dreyfus, too, shines as their mother and forms an enjoyable double act with the Manticore (Octavia Spencer) – a feared “winged lion-scorpion lady” who was once notorious but now runs a restaurant and fears lawsuits.
Scanlon’s personal connection to the material is strong, inspired by the fact he was just a baby when his own father died and he, like Ian, obsessively listened to a voice recording of him. The richness and authenticity of this emotion seeps into every pore of the story, creating conversations between Ian and Barley that could be playing out in any number of families, elf or otherwise, all over the world. Pixar works best when it grounds the fantastical in the real, and Onward certainly flies in that respect.
But that’s not to say that Scanlon scrimps on the spectacle. Whether it’s the rainbow-coloured crackle of magical beams or a genuinely pulse-pounding freeway chase – complete with a close-your-eyes-and-merge moment familiar to anyone who has had the displeasure to use the Coventry Ring Road – Onward is a feast for the eyes. From the aforementioned car chases to an Indiana Jones-like trip through a booby-trapped cave, Scanlon delivers real adrenaline, powered by the genuinely huge emotional stakes.
Despite its heft, though, Onward retains the lightness of touch that has always characterised the best of Pixar. It might not wield the whip-smart intellectual potency of Inside Out, or even the deep well of existential horror that powered Coco, but this is an intimate, personal Pixar adventure that lands its emotional punches with combo-strike efficiency in an ending that aims a body blow right to the heart-strings. Onward might not quite hit the zenith of the gargantuan Pixar mountain, but it’s just one more burst of gas away from that sky-high summit.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.