Directed by Dan Scanlon.
Featuring the voice talents of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Lena Waithe, Ali Wong and Tracey Ullman.
Set in a suburban fantasy world, two teenage elf brothers, Ian and Barley Lightfoot, go on an journey to discover if there is still a little magic left out there in order to spend one last day with their father, who died when they were too young to remember him.
Pixar’s latest film takes place in a fantasy-reality hybrid world where magic has faded with technological improvements, such as electricity (who needs wizardry?), planes (who needs to use their wings anymore?) and even paddling pools (that’s where most merfolk hang out now).
In the typical suburbia of New Mushroomton, teenage elf brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chis Pratt) live with their mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Ian is a shy and unsure boy, trying to psych himself up to be more outgoing like his father, who he never met, and invite classmates over to celebrate his sixteenth birthday. Barley, meanwhile, is excitable, rather foolhardy and, according to his mother, on “the world’s longest gap year”. There’s also Laurel’s boyfriend to add to the mix, Chief Officer Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), a braying centaur with an amusing lack of awareness of his rather destructive hind quarters. So far, so standard.
Holland is sweet and convincing (and a Brit doing an American accent, let’s not forget!) as anxious youngster Ian, while Pratt is excellent as his over-the-top, somewhat embarrassing older brother. It’s the kind of vibe Pratt usually channels, but here he proves that his trademark energy and positivity are a great fit with animation.
It doesn’t take long for Pixar to start tugging – quite violently – on your heartstrings though. After an embarrassing day at school, it transpires that Ian has a precious recording of his father’s voice that he listens to in low moments; he’s even come up with this own script to make it into a conversation with the father he never got to meet. A bequeathed present from him could change that, however, as Ian and Barley are given the chance to bring back their father, with a spell, for one 24-hour period. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t go according to plan and they end up with just half of their dad (the bottom half)… Cue a quest! As the nerdier brother about history and magic, it is Barley that plunges them headfirst into an epic journey to try to fix their spell and get the chance to properly spend that precious time with their father.
Onward borrows heavily from fantasy fiction, LARP culture and Dungeons & Dragons throughout – Barley bases a lot of their choices on things he’s learned from the film’s version, Quests of Yore, which he assures Ian is absolutely historically accurate. Some may find that a little cheeky or less than inspired, but Pixar has a lot of fun with the idea – and Onward is basically a love letter to the whole phenomenon. And is there really any difference between this and how Disney has approached all of the classic fairy tales its adapted (and then re-adapted…) over the years?
One of the best characters in Onward is the Manticore (Octavia Spencer), who has ended up managing her legendary tavern in a rather more commercial and toothless way than in previous generations. Her day-to-day life is now more about kids’ birthday parties and avoiding one-star online reviews, as well as the lawsuits that would likely come if she were to embrace her previous lifestyle. She also rocks a great manicure and some nice lipstick, by the way. However, her encounter with Barley and Ian sparks an identity crisis and subsequent yen for her old life of curses, swords and maps, which is only too handy when Laurel is in hot pursuit of her sons and needs all the help she can get! A spin-off movie of Laurel and the Manticore’s road-trip is absolutely something I would watch.
There’s also the joke that Onward’s unicorns are far less Disney Pixar sparkly fantasy than expected and more feral pigeons, scrounging in the bins for scraps. Pixies are also transformed into a fierce biker gang who do not take kindly to any slights, even when imagined. The fake top half of Ian and Barley’s dad flopping about in ways that infuriate the pixies is one of the film’s highlights. Barley’s warning of the fearsome gelatinous cube that consumes anything in its pathway is also a fun addition that Pixar has borrowed from real-life D&D lore (the giant floating cheese puff, maybe less so). The way that Pixar has imaginatively interpreted many of these fantasy motifs for a modern setting is one of Onward’s major strengths.
Another outstanding feature of the film is, of course, the technical standard of its animation. Both Pixar and Disney are constantly at the boundaries here, pushing what’s possible. In the scene featuring a fake fur Manticore suit, the way the fibres have been animated to appear both life-like but also fake in comparison to the rest of the film’s reality is quite staggering. Onward has a lovely balance of the mundane and the fantastical, and the way Pixar melds them together is really fun (see also in the script, with Ian’s very relatable fear of the merge). Having the added fantasy element means there’s also room for plenty of colour and some beautiful landscapes – only to be expected, of course, when one is undertaking an epic quest.
A lot of Onward’s emotional heft comes back with a vengeance in the final bits of the film. Without going into spoilerific specifics, the way Ian comes to define his relationship with Barley, and the way in which the story wraps up their quest to properly meet their father, is both traumatic and life-affirming. You are very aware of Pixar’s emotional manipulation, but the company does it so well (they’re professionals at this, anyway) that it’s okay! To say it does for brothers what Frozen did for sisters is rather reductive – it’s a different type of setting and story and, quite frankly, it’s more powerful here.
So ready yourself for an epic film quest, as there’s plenty of charm, fun and magic to embrace in Onward.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★