Sunday 26 April 2020

Film Review: Onward

In a tale of two brothers, medieval magic meets sleepy suburbia in Pixar’s Onward.

Onward pairs Pixar’s patented mélange of heart, humour and gorgeous animation with a familiar Dungeons and Dragons setting populated by pixies, elves, sprites and goblins. 

In this mystical realm, magic is a mere memory, and the world has mostly moved on. Our hero is awkward elf teen Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland), who is on the cusp on adulthood but struggling to grapple with the practicalities of growing up – from making friends to learning to drive.

You see, Ian never knew his dad, and has spent his formative years without a father figure to look up to. His older brother Barley (Chris Pratt, with a vocal performance that recalls his work as slacker Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation) is a basement-dwelling dork who drives a dilapidated van, plays with figurines and daydreams of magic quests.

On his sixteenth birthday, Ian is gifted an ancient staff that possesses the power to bring his dad back to life for a day. But a miscast spell leaves him stuck in limbo, so Ian and Barley find themselves in a race against time to find a special gem that will complete the enchantment.

It goes without saying when discussing Pixar at this point, but the animation in Onward is scarily good. The fantastical world is popping with colour and detail, and there’s no shortage of cute asides that riff on the mix of mystical and the mundane – from unicorns that gnaw away at trash cans like racoons to arcade games with names like ‘Prance Prance Revolution’. The film sprinkles this stuff throughout, but never overdoes it – similar to Disney's Zootopia.

From processing emotions (Inside Out) to dealing with death (Coco), Pixar’s original output has consistently seen the studio tackle mature themes in ways that are compelling and digestible for young minds, and Onward is no different.

Ian serves as an insert for director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), whose dad passed away when he was just a year old, making this a particularly personal pursuit for the filmmaker. 

From the moment Ian and Barley embark on their quest to the final scene, Onward is a ‘feels trip’ in every sense of the phrase. Ian overcomes his internal self-doubt en route, but the crux of the film is his relationships with both his layabout brother and the idealistic image of his dad he has in his head.

The Verdict: 8/10

After one or two scrapes along the way, Scanlon’s underlines the importance of paternal and fraternal familial frameworks in a touching finale that abounds with swashbuckling adventure, and is awash with stirring emotion. 

It may not rate up there with Pixar’s crème de la crème, but Onward sees the studio bring back a spark of that old magic after a slew of tired sequels.

Onward is now available in Australia via Disney Plus.

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