'Onward' Has That Old Pixar Magic Directed by Dan Scanlon
Starring Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Lena Waithe, Ali Wong, Wilmer Valderrama
Published Mar 03, 2020Pixar's last couple of films have been sequels; it's been a few years since the Disney-owned animation studio knocked it out of the park with an original story. They've now rediscovered their magic with Onward — a film full of heart and humour that's quite literally about rediscovering magic.
Onward is such a classic piece of Pixar world-building that it's a wonder they hadn't done it already. The film is set in an alternate reality populated by pixies, trolls and centaurs — but thanks to the ease of technology, magic has been made redundant, resulting in a functional, but dull, world that looks a lot like ours. Dragons are house pets and unicorns are trash-eating scavengers, making for a mashup of the magical and the mundane akin to The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc. or Cars.
Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is a shy, awkward elf celebrating his 16th birthday, while his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) is a brash and outgoing nerd with a passion for heavy metal and tabletop roleplaying games. Their father died when they were young, but now with Ian approaching adulthood, the brothers go on a magical quest in an attempt reconnect with dad.
Barley's love of D&D-style fantasy reinforces the idea that their world has lost its connection to magic; it's a slightly "ok boomer" allegory about how we're all too obsessed with technology, but it's so much fun that it doesn't really matter.
The way that Onward subverts clichés about going on quests and fighting dragons is a simple joke done perfectly. The plot is predictable and the jokes pretty much write themselves, but director/co-writer Dan Scanlon never misses an opportunity to have fun with the concept. (As has been widely publicized, the heroes encounter Disney-Pixar's first openly gay character, voiced by Lena Waithe; it's a good thing for representation, but the character has such a minor role that it feels like a baby step rather than a groundbreaking moment.)
There's slapstick humour and visual spectacle, but the real takeaway is that Onward is a tear-jerker. With its depiction of a high school outcast, an adorable brotherly bond, a concerned and caring mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and a dead father, the film goes straight for the heartstrings. If you sobbed at the first few minutes of Up, you're going to want to brace yourself.
Perhaps it's a little manipulative in the way Onward aggressively attempts to make audiences cry — but it succeeds. Now please don't look at me while I compose myself.