THE STORY – Two teenage elf brothers, Ian and Barley Lightfoot, go on an journey to discover if there is still a little magic left out there in order to spend one last day with their father, who died when they were too young to remember him.
THE CAST -Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus & Octavia Spencer
THE TEAM – Dan Scanlon (Director/Writer), Jason Headley & Keith Bunin (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 103 Minutes
By Daniel Howat
While fantastical realms have been familiar territory in animation for almost a century, Pixar has mostly steered clear of fairies and magic. That all changes with “Onward,” the film putting a unique spin on the world of elves, fairies, and wizards. In this journey to reclaim magic, the world may feel a bit too familiar, but the love between brothers and their longing for what’s been lost is genuinely moving.
Ian and Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, respectively) are elves. They live in a mushroom home in a town called “New Mushroomton,” along with their mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and their pet dragon, Lazy. One key difference between this story and most elven tales is that there’s no magic. That is, not anymore. In this world, wizards gave up on magic long ago because it was too difficult to master. Why cast a risky spell to light a torch when you could just flip a light switch? Why use your ability to fly when you could just drive? Now, this world of magical creatures looks remarkably similar to our own, and they’ve forgotten that magic was ever real.
Director Dan Scanlon is no stranger to human-like worlds populated by non-human creatures. This film feels very similar to Scanlon’s previous Pixar film, “Monsters University,” along with Disney’s “Zootopia.” All of these films got plenty of mileage from puns, winking at the audience about their world being ever-so-slightly different from ours. In “Onward,” we have soda named “Mountain Doom” (instead of Mountain Dew), and unicorns eating out of the garbage instead of raccoons. While it often feels far too reminiscent of those other films, the world is beautifully animated and charming enough that it works well for the film.
These elf brothers lost their father many years ago, shortly before Ian was born. Ian longs for any memories of his father, longs for the relationship that seems to have been robbed from him. His older brother Barley has fleeting memories of their father – he was only a few years old when their father passed – but at least it’s something. Then, on Ian’s 16th birthday, his mom gives him a gift left by his dad: a wizard’s staff. Soon, with his father’s instructions and Barley’s help, Ian casts a spell to bring his dad back for 24 hours. Naturally, this doesn’t go as planned, and only their dad’s legs are brought back by this unfinished spell. The brothers embark on a quest, alongside their dad’s legs, for a gem to recast the spell and spend a precious few hours with their dad.
Pixar’s never been a studio to shy away from tough subjects. “Onward” tackles grief, loss, and emptiness head-on. The quest that the brothers embark upon is pretty straightforward and fairly thin, but it creates beautiful moments for the brothers to deepen their relationship. Barley is the wild one, often seen as the screw-up. Ian is reserved, cautious, and embarrassed by Barley. They clash in their approaches to complete the journey, but bond in their shared desire for just a few more moments with their dad.
Anyone who has ever lost someone close to them will deeply resonate with the pain felt by these brothers. They may also resonate with the different ways in which their grief changed the course of their lives. For Barley, it’s caused him to want to live life without fear. For Ian, it’s caused deep insecurity and a feeling of incompleteness. The film isn’t always subtle in the way this grief displays itself, but it’s profoundly honest.
The film doesn’t stop with its confrontation of grief. In fact, the most poignant moments in “Onward” are more about the relationship between the brothers than their grief. This film portrays an unselfish love between brothers in a remarkably effective way, providing a perfectly directed emotional climax.
“Onward” snuck up on me in ways that I wasn’t expecting. The world and the quest are enjoyable, but never feel truly original. This could be why the emotional beats landed so well – they’re a welcome surprise. This is a film that will truly entertain your young ones, but I have no doubt it will move you as well. Bring the tissues. You just might need them.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – In addition to the expected gorgeous animation, the conclusion is genuinely moving and will leave most audiences in tears. This is a surprisingly effective story of brotherly love that really works.
THE BAD – The plot is a bit thin, and contained in a world that feels a bit too reminiscent of “Zootopia” and “Monsters University.” The emotional climax works well but isn’t exactly subtle, which some viewers might see as manipulative rather than earned.
THE OSCARS – Best Animated Feature (Nominated)