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In what is the first of two (hopefully, we’ll see how things pan out) Pixar films released this year, the animation giant’s latest film Onward has had a few hurdles in front of it. Despite some clear influences, the film is an original work from Pixar and thus takes a bit more selling than, say, Toy Story 4 but ahead of release it didn’t quite get the major promotional push others have and there have been a few controversies surrounding a van (yes, a van) and LGBT content (yes, seriously)! As the COVID-19 pandemic halts the human world, Onward’s struggle is now certified, but I urge readers to check out the film (which will be arriving on digital platforms and TV box office soon) because, in spite of it not perhaps challenging the studio’s greatest work, Onward is great fun and has a massive heart hat’s much needed right now.
The story is set in a modern day fantasy world, where people’s old mythical magic roots have long since faded in favour of cars, phones and the other modern day tech items. In this world, teenage elf Ian (Tom Holland) is about to turn sixteen and – as per his late father’s wishes – he and his older rebellious magical heritage-loving brother Barley (Chris Pratt) receive a package from their dad, containing a staff and a spell to bring him back for just one day. Unfortunately the spell only half works…literally! Leading Ian and Barley on an adventure that will reveal far more than they both realise.
Utilising some of the physical comedy deployed in films like Toy Story 3 and Wall-E, the part played in this tale by the brothers father is funny, heartfelt and in some way rather tragic but the mission to bring him back is really only half (pun intended) the story here. Onward is a poignant tribute to brotherhood, as well as the strength of parental bonds and the somewhat magical power of how our lost loved ones live on within us and our actions. Viewers with siblings, especially brothers, are very likely to be moved by the movie, and it is easy to see why some have called Dan Scanlon’s film Frozen for boys but it is really more than that description makes it sound.
Scanlan, Jason Headley and Keith Bunin’s script may not strike at the heart as hard as some of Pixar’s greatest but it is a largely hilarious adventure and when the emotional beats set in, they work very well in the overall structure of the film. Clearly made by and for fans of traditional fantasy (mythical creatures, sorcerers, dragons, etc.) this is a film indebted to tabletop classics like Dungeons and Dragons and which will likely be warmly embraced by board game enthusiasts and big families alike. And there are a few fun ludicrous twists on mythology and fantasy, that make for some visually striking sight gags, as the animation remains as exemplary as you would expect.
What is especially nice too is how – while missing their dad Wilden and wanting him back (or in Ian’s case to meet him) – Ian and Barley do not look past their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) or their supportive but sometimes nutty Centaur cop stepdad Colt (Mel Rodriguez). In fact, while this is a film about the kinship that is brotherhood, their resourceful, loving and determined mum gets her own quest and has a great part to play in her boys’ adventure.
The voice work is all round of a great quality, with Holland especially excelling as the initially reserved and scared Ian who bursts out and matures as the plot goes on. While Pratt is equally well placed as the jovial and fun Barley who equally grows up and gets his own resolution, as his character blossoms throughout. The supporting work by Dreyfus as Laurel is great, and her onscreen pairing with the fierce but stuck in a job that has pretty much broken her (we’ve all been there) manticore Corey (the always excellent Octavia Spencer) is as much of a hoot as it sounds. All that’s really missing is a villain, as the film does not have one as such, save for an ‘end boss’ style obstacle at the end.
Some have said Onward does not measure up to the Pixar classics but I really enjoyed it and thought it boasted an interesting and alive world influenced by traditional myth, and brought it to life with likeable characters, heartwarming thrills, reliably adorable visuals and a very funny script.
You get to roll again Pixar!