“We’re going on a quest!”
Every once in awhile, we stumble across little bits of magic in the world; a smile shared with a loved one, the sunset soaking up the sky, the perfect harmony of music and voice in your favorite song’s chorus. These things all remind us that there are glimmers of perfection and wonder all around us, whether we realize it or not.
Onward, the newest addition to the legendary Pixar collection, is about that magic, at least to a certain degree. It’s a lot of things, actually. Onward is a road trip movie, a buddy comedy, a coming of age story, and a mythical adventure all rolled into one, with a beating heart of gold beneath it all. It’s nearly two hours of that magic I mentioned earlier.
Onward tells the story of Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), a 16-year-old elf growing up in a world that used to be full of magic but has since settled into the complacency of modernity. His older brother, Barley (a very emotive Chris Pratt), idolizes those days of yore, spending much of his free time playing a Dungeons & Dragons-style game supposedly based on their world’s history. On Ian’s birthday, the boys’ mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives him a gift from their late father: a magical staff. He includes instructions for a visitation spell that will bring him back to life for 24 hours so he can meet his grown-up sons. When Ian botches the spell initially, the boys set out on a quest to find a crystal that finishes bringing him back.
This setup has all the trappings for a classic fantasy adventure. Mythology, magic, and the hero’s journey are all present here, culminating in yet another memorable world from the minds at Pixar. While the story does hit some familiar beats along the way to its terrific final act, it does so with a lightness and charm that is all but impossible to ignore. It makes you think you know where it’s going, only to make a few surprising choices that reset the finale in beautiful ways. In the end, it’s an unexpected journey after all.
Tom Holland and Chris Pratt are the two cruxes of this film and both more than rise to the challenge. Holland voices uncertainty and insecurity so well, but also knows exactly when to grit his teeth and rise to a challenge. Pratt, on the other hand, gets a lot more range to work with, bringing all the stubbornness, idiocy, and walled-off tenderness of a young man to the proceedings. I was caught off-guard a number of times by just how much his performance got to me; he’s fantastic. It’s clear that the two actors have strong chemistry, and it pays off as the journey goes on.
It probably goes without saying that Onward is beautifully animated, with textures and effects that have incredible depth and pizzazz. The magic absolutely crackles in an otherwise very lived-in world. It’s also full of great sight gags and corny spins on real-world objects (I probably laughed harder at “Prance Prance Revolution” than I should have). It doesn’t quite reach the stunning animation in last year’s Toy Story 4, but it’s exceptional in its own way.
I really fell for Onward’s premise and inventive world-building from the start. Some might see it as too simplistic or on-the-nose, but I think that’s part of the point. It’s easy to become jaded or close yourself off to the magic all around us, and this film understands that. That magic is found in the journey, not the destination. It’s found in who we take that journey with. It’s found in a beat-up van (“steed”) named Guinivere.
Magic, as it turns out, is found in movies like this.
Directed by: Dan Scanlon
Written by: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin
Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer