Once upon a time, Pixar made inventive, original family stories, but in recent years they’ve leant heavily on sequels such as Toy Story 4, Incredibles 2 and Finding Dory. Has the magic gone? As their first original story since 2017’s Coco, Onward asks a similar question – and provides a very satisfactory answer. Its setting is a realm of mythical creatures who live much as modern-day humans do – less Middle-earth than 1970s fantasy art come to life. The magic has pretty much gone. The unicorns forage through suburban rubbish bins, and even though he could gallop at 70mph, the centaur cop drives a car – impractical as that may be.
Onward indicates early on that it is going to be a quest movie. It even signposts how it is not taking the straightforward route but the “path of peril”. As with the best of Pixar’s output, the journey is as much inward as outward (or onward). Our heroes are two blue-skinned elves: weedy, insecure Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) and his slow-witted elder brother Barley (Chris Pratt, channelling Jack Black), whose encyclopedic knowledge of arcane magical lore might just come in handy. Their father died before Ian was born (mum is now dating the centaur cop), but he left the brothers an odd gift to open on Ian’s 16th birthday: a spell to bring him back for a day. As anyone who has seen the trailer will know, the spell only half-works: the bottom half. All the brothers end up with is their father’s feet and legs. How to materialise the rest of him before sunset? Quest time!
Thus, they hit the road in Barley’s souped-up van, in a race against time to find the thing they need– dragging dad’s legs behind them like a clumsy pet. The legs thing is initially off-putting (best not to think too hard about the anatomy) but half-dad provides some novel comic relief, especially when the brothers fashion a makeshift top half for him. There are surprises and delights along the way: some surreally comical, some modestly spectacular, others that could have been cadged from an old Dungeons & Dragons campaign. But Onward reveals itself to be more than a straightforward boys’ adventure.
The story slyly strays into matters of male relationships – fraternal as much as paternal. The brothers’ characters deepen considerably as they discover and reveal strengths and vulnerabilities. Amid the inevitable climactic action, the reunion with the father is resolved in a way that is delicate, unexpected and quietly moving. Rather than offering trite homilies, Onward feels sincere and specific, and all the better for it. (Writer-director Dan Scanlon lost his father when he was a year old, and has no memory of him.)
You could argue that there’s little here for girls and women – although there are supporting roles for the boys’ mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Octavia Spencer’s crisis-stricken manticore (a winged lion/dragon/scorpion creature). But while these kinds of relationships are often dealt with in female-led fairytales, for male characters this is still relatively under-explored territory. Beneath the bro-friendly, fantasy-art trappings, Onward finds a little bit of that old Pixar magic.
• This article was amended on 22 February 2020. An earlier version described Onward as “Frozen for boys”, both in the headline and the text. The headline was amended and the phrase removed from the review.
Source: The Guardian