Opening with a short prologue showing this world’s version of medieval times, Onward tells of a history that was full of magic and mythical creatures. As magic was difficult to learn and to perform, however, the coming of technology – the light bulb shown as an example of something that seems magic, without all that need for studying – leads to magic falling out of vogue.
Moving to the present day, the world is now analogous to ours, but with the mythical creatures remaining, albeit they are living ordinary lives, much as with human beings. Hence our two teenage leads, brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) Lightfoot are Elves, living in New Mushroomton – a standard issue American city, but for houses being mushroom shaped, and some of the naming conventions evoking that medieval world of magic. They have a family pet, but it happens to be a dragon, rather than a dog, or a cat. Their mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is widowed, and dating a police officer, who just happens to be a centaur. As magic has gone from this world, none of our characters use any of their special features. Our centaur, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez) drives a standard issue police car, and characters with wings do not use them.
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As the main story begins, Ian is reaching his 16th birthday. He is a shy kid, but very good natured. Barley, by contrast, is a confident, heavyset older teen, with a deep interest in history and mythical lore: he has studied many of the spells that have fallen into disuse. After a bad day at school, Ian is cheered by his mother retrieving a present from the house’s loft, a gift from their late-father, Wilden, intended to be given to the boys when both had passed the age of 16. The present is a magical staff (think Gandalf’s in the Lord of the Rings films for how it looks).
With the staff is a letter giving a visitation spell. This will allow them to resurrect their father – who died before Ian was born – for a full day. Wielding the staff, first Barley attempt this, then Ian. Ian partially succeeds, bringing back the bottom half of their father only. From here we have established that there is magic in the family line, and Ian has inherited an aptitude. To enact the spell, the boys used a rare gem that came with the package. In undertaking it, the gem was destroyed, and the quest is now on to find another before the day expires and Ian loses the chance to meet his father. Finding them gone, Laurel sets off in pursuit of the boy,; who are in Barley’s van with the sentient legs of their father (yes, really).
We are certainly in the era of Disney taking over the world. Having owned Pixar for some time, there has been a drift towards a greater number of sequels, with the last two entries having been a second and a fourth instalment, respectively. In fact, the pre-film short this time was a short story for The Simpsons, as a mean of welcoming them into the Disney family. It is fair to say Pixar do occasionally reach the heights of their 1995-2004 output, a run of uninterrupted quality, broken by Cars, but that the picture has become more variable.
Thankfully, Onward is far more Coco than Cars 3. All of the hallmarks of top-tier Pixar are here: a story that feels fully authored – that is to say a story that appears to come from the heart; strong relatable characters; themes and a message (worn lightly, unlike, say, The Good Dinosaur, which hit everyone over the head with its messages); genuinely laugh-out-loud moments; an eye for detail – for everything from subtleties in environmental design, to background jokes that could be, and likely were, in some cases, missed; and a structure of set-up and pay-off that leads to resolution to things that weren’t always obvious as being set-ups at all. Finally, the film achieves what is managed by most great Pixar: the ability to end the story leaving audiences fighting back tears, or at very least finding the air getting a little dusty.
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Onward ends up a tale of the love between two brothers. Much as Stan Laurel spent the rest of his life writing Laurel and Hardy sketches after the death of Oliver Hardy, Ian and Barley really only learn what they have once their lives are put into peril. As this is something uncovered gently as the story progresses, so we can say that the themes are – correctly – secondary to story.
The story itself is terrific, with it being easy to imagine how many laughs there must have been at the pitch meeting (“well, they have his legs – yes they take them along on the journey… I dunno, a dog lead?”). The idea is fresh, and execution full of heart. The voice work matches the characters very well, without any of them resembling their voice artists particularly. In fact, Barley is slightly evocative of Shrek, certainly in build, whereas Ian is somewhat similar, in some respects, to Alfredo Linguini in Ratatouille. In lesser hands, Barley would be insufferable – loud, overconfident, a little gaff-prone, perhaps even played a little dumb. Here, he is a three-dimensional character, smart and full of personality. He just has a different approach to life from his brother, and the film is clever enough to probe why.
Off the top of the head, there are likely at least half a dozen films that could stand above Onward in Pixar’s canon. This feels more of a quirky side-adventure than a central pillar of a studio’s output. It is an offering, however, that reminds us that Pixar still retain their drive for quality, their attention to detail, and their desire for fresh, inventive storytelling. Post-the John Lasseter era, and with over a decade of mixed output, every time they accomplish this is a new joy.