Following two sequel releases, Incredibles 2 and Oscar-winning Toy Story 4, Pixar is back with a new original story and, as ever, they mean business. Although the studio’s 22nd release, Onward is as imaginative and fun as their first (and that was Toy Story, so that’s saying something). This is truly a quest that you will want to set out on.
In a world that was once full of magic and now lost to modernisation, timid elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) receives a wizard’s staff for his 16th birthday - along with a spell that will allow him and brazen older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) to spend 24 hours with their father who died before Ian was born. As to be expected, difficulty arises and after one big gem-shattering mistake the brothers have to set out on a quest of their own to complete the spell and meet their father again.
Pixar is famed for continually stretching the creative limits of what is possible with CG visuals and the imagination. A modernised fantasy-world isn’t too uncommon an idea (ask any Dungeon Master or RPG Reddit page) but Onward’s depiction of New Mushroomton is a delight to see unfold. Its history and design are effortlessly built up, with dragons in place of dogs and Pixie-led motorbike gangs telling you everything you need to know about the world's loss of magic without need for exposition dumps.
Whether or not the resurgence of D&D has any part in the creation of Onward, the presence of the role-playing game can be felt throughout the narrative and world and is used to great effect. Despite the story hitting familiar beats of the hero’s journey, the self-awareness brings a new play on the tropes as Barley uses his years of playing ‘Quests of Yore’ (canonical D&D, with dice and all) to guide the two of them through this adventure. Laurel Lightfoot (Julia Louis-Dreyfus on top form) heads out on a quest of her own in order to find her sons and, similarly, finds herself caught up in a separate adventuring party that has some of the best moments of the film.
Director Dan Scanlon confidently mixes these high-fantasy elements with a strong story that is both one of Pixar’s funniest and most emotional films. The dialogue is whip-smart and there are some outstanding visual gags all of which are backed up by some flawless comedic timing from Holland, Pratt, and Louis-Dreyfus. The core duo brings a little of their MCU bromance to Onward, their chemistry feels like a real sibling relationship with every in-joke, frustration, and unspoken appreciation.
As ever, this is where Pixar succeeds the most. For every moment played for laughs there is another ready to make you cry. Onward did not go where I was expecting it to, and all the better for it. All I can say, to avoid any potential spoilers, is that by the end you will be ugly crying. There is something deeply personal about Onward — Scanlon himself stated that an audio-recording found by himself and his brother of their father who died when they were both very young helped inspire the story. And yet the film still feels universal, welcoming to kids and adults alike.
Onward is released in UK cinemas on Friday March 6