Pixar’s Onward starts with a declaration: “Long ago, the world was filled with wonder.” The camera sweeps over visions of paladins, bards, and wizards – all borrowed lovingly from the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons or JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. But it took hard work and skill to master spells and swordsmanship, the voiceover continues, so gremlins and elves alike moved on to something more convenient: technology. Magic began to fade out of memory.
But Onward isn’t here to scold us all for becoming addicted to our iPhones. A film crafted entirely on computers wouldn’t have a leg to stand on in that regard. Instead, it’s a reminder of how easily the creative spark can be lost within the mundane, simple routines of modern life. The concept makes sense for a studio that promised last year it would finally move on from sequels, post-Toy Story 4.
The narrative here concerns two elf brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt), who were raised by their attentive and sprightly mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). The boys’ father died before Ian was born, while Barley was so young that he only has a handful of recollections of him. On Ian’s 16th birthday, Laurel reveals that their father had left behind a handful of gifts: a wizard’s staff, a rare phoenix gem, and a spell that can bring him back from the dead for 24 hours. But the spell backfires. The gem shatters. If they ever want to see their father again, even for the briefest moment of time, the brothers must set out on an epic adventure to the very edges of the map.
Barley is his world’s version of a nostalgist. He insists that the roleplaying game he’s based his life around, Quests of Yore, is a “historically accurate” catalogue of how things once were. His scrapheap-ready, hippie van is actually a “knightly steed”, christened Guinevere. But to those around him, such passions are just the signs of emotional immaturity. He’s a young man on the world’s longest gap year who refuses to take the next step in life. And while Ian loves him, there’s a part of him that can’t help but agree that his brother’s a lost cause, especially when Barley’s one-track mind risks derailing his one chance to meet his dad. Barley, in turn, only wishes his brother wouldn’t dismiss him so easily.
As could have been guessed from the moment “dead dad” entered the picture, Onward is another soul-crushing tearjerker in the tradition of 2017’s Coco and 2015’s Inside Out. It’s like the Pixar team set up a betting pool on who can make audiences choke on their own tears the fastest (the current winner, of course, is 2009’s Up and its devilish gut-punch of an opener). Director Dan Scanlon, who co-wrote the script with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, examines his own experiences here. Ian practises imagined conversations with an old cassette of his father’s voice – one of the few relics of his father’s existence. It was an audio clip of his own dad that inspired Scanlon to make the film. The Pixar team know that personal investment is the best way to poke at raw nerves, as Onward delves deep into the idea of how our identities are formed through the people we love and have lost. Ian, at one point, meets one of his dad’s old college friends, who reminisces about the gregarious man he once knew with a penchant for ugly purple socks. Ian, who’s still deep in his shell, locks on to that piece of information. Maybe there’s hope for him yet.
It’s impressive that a world as self-consciously silly as the one in Onward, with its rows of mushroom houses plagued by trash-scavenging unicorns, can still support meaningful, often painful conversations about loss. But the film hits all the right emotional notes, without cutting back on the goofy physical comedy or clever fantasy references – the notorious Dungeons & Dragons monster the Gelatinous Cube even gets a shout-out here. Everyone knew there’d be high expectations when it came to Onward. But it’s comforting just to see Pixar do what Pixar does best.