Onward (2020)
Onward (2020)

Genre: Fantasy and Fairy Tale Running Time: 1 hr. 43 min.

Release Date: March 6th, 2020 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Dan Scanlon Actors: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodriguez




ong ago, the world was full of wonder …” It was also adventurous, exciting, and there was magic. Despite these whimsical introductory words, the Disney and Pixar logos at the start are devoid of most of their typical sound effects, favoring instead some rather dramatic music that carries a hint of an ominous tone. Nevertheless, the new universe in “Onward” is bright and colorful, though during the present-day setting, the magical elements have faded over the course of time. Inventions like the light bulb, washing machines, arcades, skyscrapers, cars, and smartphones have negated the need for spells. As it turns out, modern technology can be quite magical all by itself.

On his 16th birthday, blueish elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) dons his dad’s old college sweater for luck, before embarking on his day, which is loaded with the usual annoyances. His mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) smothers, his roughhousing older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) embarrasses him at every turn, and his thoughts continue to wander to his father, who passed away shortly before he was born. He misses the ideals of growing up with a father, even though he never knew the man at all. And it doesn’t help that, presumably, those longings have led to Ian being painfully shy; at school, he awkwardly fumbles his way through the act of inviting some high school acquaintances to share his birthday cake that evening.

The world of “Onward” is no longer brimming with magic, but it is populated by inherently magical creatures, including pet dragons, cyclopian neighbors, satyr and ogre classmates, cave-dwelling unicorns, and a centaur police officer. Curiously, there are also varying ethnicities among these mythological entities, as well as interspecies relationships (something like “Zootopia” comes to mind). And though he is himself an elf, burly Barley is obsessed with a roleplaying fantasy game called Quests of Yore, which is supposedly based on the actual history of their not-so-ancient civilization, leading up to the creation of the modern city of New Mushroomton where they now reside.

The setting is fairly familiar, recycling the more playful concepts from “The Lord of the Rings” and “Clash of the Titans.” And Ian’s crippling insecurities are trite at best, causing him to mentally crumble in the face of social situations. He’s lonely and pitiable, particularly as he repeatedly listens to a single cassette tape containing a few snippets of conversations from his father. With so many cliches, the character introductions and the establishment of New Mushroomton are off to a rough start.

Yet a seemingly random birthday gift, tucked away in the attic, spurs a grand adventure; when a wizard’s staff, a visitation spell, and a phoenix gem create an unexpected predicament, Ian and Barley set off on an epic quest that finds them duplicating many of the missions found in Quests of Yore. For such a generic setup, this sudden shift in creativity is thoroughly unique; with laughs and heart, the two brothers begin a new chapter brimming with inventiveness. And as side quests appear, with authority figures hot on their trail, the film steadily grows more stimulating and heartwarming.

“If you mess up a spell, there are consequences.” Underneath the fantasy misadventures, replete with puzzles and curses and booby traps, is a powerful tale of catching up on lost time, brotherly bonding and conflicts, believing in oneself, and facing fears. And, perhaps more potent than the other themes is the idea that what one desires most might not be as important as appreciating what one has right now – a notion that produces some remarkably emotional moments. This, of course, is a staple of Pixar’s pictures: to conceal transcendent human qualities and sentimentality with fantasy personas, chimerical undertakings, and slapstick comedy. Here, the twists on mythological yarns are considerably clever (many resembling the trials of Sinbad or Indiana Jones), combining smartly with an action-packed, moving climax sure to prompt some tear ducts to overflow.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10