ONWARD

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Dan Scanlon

Stars: voices of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Octavia Spencer, Tracey Ullman, Mel Rodriguez, Lena Waithe, Kyle Bornheimer, Grey Griffin, Ali Wong, Wilmer Valderrama, John Ratzenberger.

Onward (2020)

Part road movie, part magical fantasy, brotherhood is one of the themes of this latest warm, funny, emotionally rich and magical fantasy from Pixar Studios. This is the 22nd animated feature from the studio that gave us such highlights as 1995’s Toy Story, but it also the first original, non-sequel from the studio in two years.

The film is set in the fictional New Mushroomton, a fantastical and magical world populated by pointy eared elves, centaurs, gnomes and trolls, and other fabulous folklore creatures. But over time much of the magic has slowly disappeared to be replaced by scientific discoveries. New Mushroomton now seems a bland typical suburban community with its shopping malls, schools, and fast food restaurants. New Mushroomton is home to Ian Lighfoot (Tom Holland, best known as the current incarnation of Spiderman) and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt, from Guardians Of The Galaxy, etc). Their father died while Barley was young and before Ian was born. Barley is a 19-year old slacker who loves heavy rock, magic, role playing games, and whose prized possession is his beaten-up van which he names Guinevere. Ian by contrast is a shy and introverted kid trying to fit in at high school and full of angst and uncertainty, lacking a positive role model in his life.  

On his 16th birthday Ian’s mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, from Seinfeld and Veep, etc) gives him a special present – a letter from the father he never knew detailing a “visitation spell”, a magical staff and a crystal that will allow him to bring his father back for one day. But something goes wrong with the spell and only their father’s bottom half appears as a pair of disembodied legs. This sets Ian and Barley off on a frantic quest to find another magical gem that will enable them to complete the spell and spend one day with their father.

The relationship between Ian and Barley is at the crux of the film – opposites in personality, their shared adventure brings them closer – and there is great rapport between Holland and the brash, wise-cracking Pratt (both of whom are veterans of the extended Marvel universe). Holland brings a nice vulnerability to his voicing of Ian, while Pratt supplies plenty of bluster and bravado to the oafish Barley.

Onward has been written by Keith Buntin (tv series In Treatment, etc), first time feature writer Jason Headley, and Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), who also directs. The film is thematically rich, dealing with themes of coming of age, brotherhood, family, parental loss, grief, adolescence, and magic. Scanlon, a veteran Disney animator, has drawn inspiration from the death of his own father while he was still very young, which adds a poignant quality to the material. The film is also punctuated with some wonderful visual humour, and the sight of the very sprightly pair of disembodied legs provides a rich running gag throughout. And the film is also laden with plenty of clever pop-cultural references.

The vocal cast also features Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures, etc) as Corey, a ferocious, fire-breathing winged creature known as a manticore, who now runs a Medieval-themed family friendly restaurant; Mel Rodriguez as Colt Bronco, the local centaur policeman who has taken an interest in Laurel and her two sons; and Tracey Ullman as a pawn shop owner.

AS to be expected, the animation is superb, rich in detail and colourful. There is some superb production design from Noah Klocek, who has created the unique, superbly rich environment of New Mushroomton, which immediately seems familiar despite its unusual inhabitants (much the same as achieved by Zootopia). The fine score from Oscar winner Mychael Danna (Life Of Pi, etc) and his brother Jeff underscores the emotional journey undertaken by the two brothers.

Onward maintains the high standards we have come to expect from Pixar films, mixing superb, rich visuals with a strong emotionally resonant narrative and lashings of wonderful humour that will appeal to audiences of all ages. The strong fantasy elements, which pay homage to the likes of Dungeons & Dragons and The Lord Of The Rings, and the pacy action will particularly appeal to teenage boys.

★★★☆

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