In a fantasy world where science and technology have replaced magic, Pixar’s Onward instead focuses on something even more interesting: two teenage elf brothers who get a chance to see their long deceased father one more time. The modern, technological world Onward is set is a far cry from the magical times of old. Creatures like fairies, centaurs and elves have evolved with science and technology to the point where their reliance on technological tools has replaced their want or need to utilize their natural or magical abilities already at their disposal.
Amongst this society that now has an over-reliance on technology is the Lightfoot family, a tight knit group that includes Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), a shy and awkward teenager living at home with his older and more adventurous brother Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt), and their widowed mother Laurel Lightfoot (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Missing, of course, is Ian’s father, who died before he was born and left an emptiness in his life.
On his 16th birthday Laurel presents both her sons a special gift – a magical staff their father wanted them to have when both boys were over the age 16. This being a magic staff it also has one extra surprise: a magic spell that will bring their father back to life for one day so that he can see what fine young men his sons grew up to be.
Naturally, the spell doesn’t go according to plan as the spell goes wrong and only their father’s legs appear when summoned. With the clock ticking, the boys must now embark on an epic quest littered with obstacles and magical education to find a rare artifact they need to try the spell again. With just 24 hours to retrieve the top-half of their father’s body before he disappears forever the two brothers will have their resolve tested while learning a few important life lessons in order for them to complete the spell.
Fortunately, Barley is an “expert” on the history of their culture as he is an avid player of a magical game equivalent to our world’s Dungeon’s & Dragons roleplaying game or Magic: The Gathering card game. Only in the fantasy world of Onward these games are referring to real history, not science-fiction.
The characters in Onward have been brilliantly brought to life with amazing animation coupled with hilarious and lovable voicework from a great cast. Basically, it’s everything you’d expect from a Pixar production. Tom Holland is perfect as Ian Lightfoot, the awkward and shy teenager who is learning how to step up and find his courage after being thrust deep outside his comfort zone. It’s the classic scenario of being so focused on what he doesn’t have that he fails to realize what he does.
Chris Pratt is fantastic as Ian’s older brother Barley Lightfoot, an expert on the magical history of his world and loves his old van that barely runs he’s dubbed Guinevere. He’s reckless, confident, spontaneous and basically the exact opposite of his little brother, which of course makes for plenty of conflict and moments to learn from. Yearning to go on a real life quest of his own after being a fan of adventure games, Barley is ready to step up and add one more happy memory of his father because, unlike Ian, he was around when his father died.
This story wouldn’t be complete without the two boys’ mother Laurel Lightfoot, voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who wonderfully portrays a loving mother doing everything she can to raise her two boys without their father. But she’s no stay-at-home mom waiting for the cavalry when her boys set off on their dangerous quest. Laurel taps into her inner warrior and goes after them, embarking on her own quest as she teams up with Manticore (Octavia Spencer) to save her sons from the curse that awaits them should they succeed.
Director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University, Tracy) has crafted a highly entertaining and honestly heartfelt story about brothers who will do whatever it takes to see their father one more time. It’s an unusual project for Pixar, blending kid-friendly animation with a Weekend at Bernie’s (1989) style romp with how they use the summoned legs of Mr Lightfoot in the story. But what really helps set the tone and creates many laughs is the overarching question being presented by this suburban fantasy world: does modern technology really better us?
Onward makes a statement about society’s relationship with technology while not preaching to its audience. The story focuses on the Lightfoot family and their quest, though underneath it all is the glaring backdrop of how modern society and its reliance on technology has hindered the world’s inhabitants or, dare say, made them regress from what they were designed to be by nature. This theme surrounding technology doesn’t detract from the familial story but instead fuels many fantastic scenes such as the biker fairies who don’t know how to fly and instead rely on their motorbikes or “scary” Manticore who runs a family restaurant and is worried about paying her bills.
Onward is a funny, heartwarming fantasy adventure that skillfully blends wildly different genres to create something entirely new, yet intimately familiar. Adults can safely take their kids to see this and know there are jokes and references aimed at them that add to the already strong story revolving around powerful themes of family and overcoming fear. Kids will love the nods to their favorite fantasy / tech tropes and the utter craziness happening on screen. With a surprising ending that isn’t typical for this type of movie it’s an easy recommendation from me and yet another win for the animation geniuses at Pixar.