Onward, Pixar’s newest movie and its first original animated feature since 2017’s Coco, has the narrative structure of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. That means it contains all the elements of a classic hero’s journey: a quest for a charmed object, an expedition through dangerous territory, and encounters with brutish enemies and crafty allies. But the most crucial aspect of the role-playing game is community—the fact that it’s played with friends and relies on teamwork. The writer-director Dan Scanlon’s clear grasp of that makes for a warm, gentle film that doesn’t try to merely dazzle the audience with wild fantasy visuals.
Scanlon’s first project with Pixar was the more workmanlike Monsters University (2013), a prequel to an earlier hit. Too often of late, the 3D-animation giant has favored those easy follow-ups to its established brands, producing only four original works (compared with seven sequels or prequels) in the past decade. Onward is the kind of movie the studio should be focusing on: an inventive, sweet, and small-scale story that still shows off the usual Pixar hallmarks. There’s some nifty world-building, unabashed sentimentality, and a keen understanding of tone, with an ending alchemically designed to provoke tears from parents and kids alike.
That formula can get exhausting at times—the Pixar brand often seems a little too perfectly calibrated to push older viewers’ nostalgia buttons—but there’s no denying its effectiveness. Onward is informed by the ’80s aesthetic of tabletop games, minivans airbrushed with heavy-metal album-cover art, and cookie-cutter suburban life, along the lines of recent throwback hits such as Stranger Things. But while it’s grounded in a plot straight out of Amblin-era Spielberg, Onward wisely leans more on humor than drama to get its message across.
The script (by Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin) is set in a world that was once governed by magic and overrun with supernatural beasts. Though it’s still populated by elves, centaurs, flying pixies, and the like, it’s also now filled with modern conveniences, because the sorcery of old has been replaced by prosaic enchantments such as microwaves and internal combustion engines. Nestled in this middle-class Tolkienverse is Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland), a gawky elvish high schooler with a confidence problem. Despite his blue skin and pointy ears, he’s a relatively stock awkward-teen character, unable to even work up the courage to invite his classmates over after school.
Far more winning is Barley (Chris Pratt), Ian’s screwup older brother who spends his days tooling around town in a minivan and participating in wizard-y role-playing games. His knowledge of the arcane comes in handy when the brothers try to resurrect their deceased father and end up accomplishing only half the spell, summoning a disembodied pair of legs. Their efforts to complete their task lead them on an adventure that would fit perfectly into any D&D volume, even though their trek includes updated twists, such as a search for gasoline and the transmogrification of a Cheeto into a lifeboat.
There’s power in the notion of a fantasy universe that has lost its edge, and Onward’s best jokes poke at that incongruity. In one sequence, the brothers travel to a dangerous tavern run by a monstrous manticore (Octavia Spencer), only to find that it’s been turned into a TGI Friday’s–esque establishment, where the owner (known as Corey) is most concerned with maintaining her karaoke machine. Given that Onward itself is a family-friendly project, the film thrives on these self-aware digs at Disneyfication; any good D&D mission should have a sense of real danger, so it’s worth pointing out how that’s missing from so much mainstream entertainment.
After a few side-quests, Onward settles on charting the development of its mismatched siblings. Both brothers are trying to figure out what it means to be an adult while wandering around with a father who has literally lost his head, and the climax revolves around the bond they’ve built in their shared adventure. Scanlon apparently anchored the story in his own life—he lost his father at a young age and played a lot of D&D—and that emotional investment pays off beautifully. I hope Onward is a huge success at the box office, but more than that, I hope Pixar turns away from sequel projects and creates more original works like this one.
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