ONWARD is the latest Disney/Pixar film from director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) about two teenage elf brothers who embark on a quest of magical proportions that will allow them the opportunity to see their dad one last time. The film stars the voice acting of Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (VEEP), Octavia Spencer (Ma), Mel Rodriguez (Little Miss Sunshine), Lena Waithe (Ready Player One), John Ratzenberger (Toy Story) and Ali Wong (Birds of Prey). To best describe the plot of the film, I’ll turn to the official synopsis:
ONWARD takes place in a suburban fantasy world filled with mythical creatures who have lost their magical touch and have resorted to the convenience of modern technology. When teenage elf brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, respectively) get an unexpected opportunity to spend one more day with their late dad, they embark on an extraordinary quest aboard Barley’s epic van Guinevere. Like any good quest, their journey is filled with magic spell, cryptic maps, impossible obstacles, and unimaginable discoveries. But when the boys’ fearless mom Laurel (voice of Julia Louis-Dreyfus) realizes her sons are missing, she teams up with a part-lion, part-bat, part-scorpion, former warrior – aka The Manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer) – and heads off to find them. Perilous curses aside, this one magical day could mean more than any of them ever dreamed.
Full disclosure – if you’ve been reading my reviews for some time, you’ve probably seen that I have mentioned I lost my father when I was 18. That said, going into this movie, I wasn’t fully prepared for the onslaught of emotions that I experienced in which, by the end of the movie, I was in a puddle of my own tears. That’s not to say the movie is bad, it’s far, far from it, but I think it’s important to let people know that if you have lost a loved one, this movie is most likely going to elicit a strong emotional response. Not that we should be surprised as Pixar is really good at destroying emotions (I see you, Up). That said, ONWARD is a charming depiction of how a family bond can help strengthen us through a traumatic event allowing us to find peace and love in the most unexpected places.
Besides the heavy dose of emotions, the film also does a terrific job of showcasing the fandom surrounding Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). I’ve never played D&D, but I was easily able to follow along when Barley would make references to it. I’m sure there were Easter eggs I missed along the way but there was enough information to keep me engaged and informed as to the reasoning behind certain decisions. Though I may not have a lot of knowledge on the game, it was wonderful to hear friends of mine who saw the movie say that the depiction of D&D was rather accurate. More importantly, it meant a lot to them to have that be a part of the film as it was clear that research went into making sure to portray an accurate representation of what D&D is like as well as the game pieces used.
As for the story, I felt like this was one of Pixar’s strongest. In the beginning, I was definitely on edge knowing the topic at hand, but I felt like the writers paid close attention to crafting a story that not only pulled on emotional strings but also offset the sadder moments with perfectly executed comedic timing. I also appreciated how fleshed out our main characters were, as this allowed me to easily form an attachment to them. Sure, they’re elves, but outside of that, it was easy to relate to what they were experiencing in both the loss of a loved one as well as the excitement surrounding the opportunity to see that person again. The differing personalities that both Ian and Barley exhibited were one of the reasons why this movie worked so well. That said, their differences are what ultimately brings them closer together as a family unit. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they each don’t have to go through their own trials and tribulations, as that’s what basically helps them understand themselves better, resulting in the ability of each of them to become closer to the other.
The chemistry between Ian and Barley is what really sells the movie and that shines through because of the performances by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt. It felt genuine and believable, which I’m sure was helped by the fact that they each worked together on Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. I enjoyed the juxtaposition between Ian and Barley’s personalities, with Ian being the more reasonable, grounded character and Barley being the more adventurous and funny of the two. Additionally, the friendship that forms between Laurel Lightfoot and The Manticore is one that showcases the beginnings of a solid friendship. As they frantically try to locate Ian and Barely, you can see the blossoming of friendship as both women help each other in realizing their full potential. I also felt like ONWARD really made an effort to create a cast of characters that were diverse, not just in terms of different creatures like elves, centaurs, unicorns, gnomes, and more, but also in the actors that voiced the characters. I can’t remember a time when I saw an animated film of this magnitude feature a character that has a disability where it’s never brought up, allowing that character to exist without a spotlight focused on their condition. Also, I may be wrong, but I thought I saw a character wearing a Pride pin, which if that’s the case, I hope this is a step in the much-needed direction of incorporating more characters that are LGBTQ+ into the Disney folds.
ONWARD is a very special film for me. It’s one that I wish I could have watched with my brother and my mother because we, as a family, have experienced the pain of losing someone we loved deeply. For me, I would give anything to have one more day with my dad, to ask him questions, to find out if he is proud of me, to hug him, and to say a proper goodbye. Just like Ian, I also wear a sweatshirt that used to be my dad’s and it’s one of my most cherished possessions. ONWARD is emotional, I won’t lie, but it also inspires hope. It’s a film that will bring families closer together through the tears and laughter while showcasing the undeniable power that magic and love can bestow upon those who need it the most. Do yourself a favor and see this film with your family when it’s released in theaters on March 6th, but just remember to bring a box of Kleenex with you.