REVIEW: Onward [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG | Runtime: 102 minutes
    Release Date: March 6th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Pixar Animation Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
    Director(s): Dan Scanlon
    Writer(s): Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley & Keith Bunin

Be Like Dad.

It’s Ian Lightfoot’s (Tom Holland) sixteenth birthday and he’s hoping to make it count. He’s not about to go on a rager with friends, though. He’s way too introverted for that. Ian therefore merely seeks to conquer a few baby steps towards mild extroversion by putting on his late father’s college sweatshirt to boost confidence and check off some boxes on a list he wrote to change himself into the man he wishes he might become. That means standing up for himself when others treat him like a doormat. It means facing his fear of the highway to finally learn to drive. And, last but not least, it’s the kick in the pants to invite kids over for his birthday party. He fails to accomplish them all.

If Ian were more like big brother Barley (Chris Pratt), these struggles wouldn’t exist. He’s always been the more outgoing and brash of the two—a young man who sticks to his convictions and doesn’t care what anyone says about his doing so. That means stunts like chaining himself to a landmark fountain earmarked for demolition despite his mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus‘ Laurel) wishing he wouldn’t and her boyfriend (Mel Rodriguez‘s police chief Colt Bronco) having to collect him when he does. Barley marches to the beat of his own drum with his trusty steed Guinevere (a beat-up, broken down van) and an encyclopedic knowledge of his favorite Dungeons and Dragons-like tabletop game. He yearns for those historical days of old with wizards, jewels, and perilous adventures vanquishing curses.

And when I say “historical,” I mean it. The Lightfoots are elves after all. Their neighbors are trolls, pixies, and centaurs with pet dragons fending off feral unicorns rummaging through trashcans. The setting of Dan Scanlon‘s Onward isn’t therefore of our reality. There are two moons in the sky, numerous humanoid species, and a working knowledge that magic did exist before technology turned the population complacent towards carrying on the tradecraft necessary to keep spellcasting alive. Creatures with wings forgot they could fly and heroes throwing caution to the wind devolved into capitalistic slaves to a financial bottom-line. If not for a surprise posthumous gift from Dad in the form of a wizard’s staff, Ian would have gone on believing it was all just fairy tale.

Co-scripted by Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, this fantastical journey of self-discovery and impossible reunion was born from Scanlon’s own experience growing up without a father. He imagined an environment where the one wish any kid in that situation prayed for could actually occur—one where a wizard could conjure the dead for a single-use, twenty-four hour session to meet his/her children. That’s what the staff Wilden Lightfoot left his sons might provide. Place an extremely rare Phoenix Gem at its top, speak a spell aloud, and watch it bring their loved one back to life. The only caveat is that someone with magic inside him/her must do the honor. That Ian discovers he does is an accident and his inability to believe it brings trouble.

What did they expect? The whole reason magic was lost is because it was too hard to master. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Ian only accomplishes half of the spell’s potential: bringing Wilden back from the waist down. He can’t see his boys or hear them. He’s nothing more than a liability with no idea of where he’s going and no way to tell his family he loves them. And since the gem broke in the process, the only way to finish the incantation is procuring another. Luckily for them, seeing magic in all its glory vindicates Barley’s devotion to its memory via role-playing games. Suddenly every “worthless” morsel of lore in his head proves crucial in finishing what Ian unwittingly began. Together it might just work.

They’re up against a clock, though, since the spell doesn’t care about how much of Wilden is here. He has twenty-four hours. That’s it. So Ian and Barley must drop everything to find another stone before the next sunset. That means taking Guinevere to the one person who might know what to do: the fabled Manticore (Octavia Spencer). A once ferocious, sword-wielding beast that directed ambitious travelers towards dangerous quests, she’s now a tavern owner that’s all but forgotten what it was like to live on the edge. The boys don’t have time for her newfound trepidation or fear of lawsuits, though, so they do what they must to get the information needed before heading towards Raven’s Point to see their Dad. If only it were that easy.

Onward unfolds into a cutely endearing and comically entertaining buddy adventure with responsible Ian and irresponsible Barley thrust together to achieve the impossible. Scanlon and company have fun with the characters they meet along the way (The Manticore’s famed aggression is nicely countered by a fluffy mascot playing with customers, flightless pixies have evolved into burly bikers wreaking havoc wherever they go with their Napoleon complexes, and Colt Bronco is a giant centaur who can’t help but knock into and break whatever his behind hits as his front moves). And they also do well to project a set of game rules upon the plot to keep the magic a resource rather than a crutch. Ian must learn to get out of his own way to wield his power.

That means trusting in himself and his brother—two things he’s never done. It’s also about discovering what he had growing up (a strong mother and caring brother) instead of what he didn’t (the father he never met). Ian must act from his heart, believe in his abilities, and sacrifice selfish desires to realize what he truly needs. Laurel and the Manticore team-up for parallel antics as they desperately try to help the boys from afar, Colt attempts to reconcile being a good father figure and good cop simultaneously, and Barley hopes to prove he isn’t a screw-up. The latter’s actions may seem misguided and fanciful up close, but taking a step back helps us recognize how the love and pride for his family and heritage drives him.

D&D fans should enjoy the humor (Pratt’s Barley is a perfect mix of know-it-all nerdom and heart-of-gold intent) and appreciate the subversion of tropes/stereotypes therein (my partner was quick to mention how great it was seeing characters with traditionally exclusionary traits implicitly embrace the filmmakers’ inclusive motives even if it was mostly in the background). Kids should have fun with the mix of nervous (Ian) and bold (Barley) energy driving the narrative forward against wild adversaries. And adults should be able to look past numerous liberties with the plot to bask in the fantastical action and memories of their youth. So while it’s a pretty straightforward entry in Pixar’s usually trendsetting oeuvre, it’s relatable and resonant enough to still best most Hollywood children’s fare delivered year after year.

courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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