Onward review: Pixar’s fantasy quest uncovers brotherly love

Two mismatched suburban elf brothers seek to reconjure their late father in Dan Scanlon’s rollicking emotional adventure.


Onward (2020)

At what point does a winning formula become just another formula? The obvious answer would seem to be “when it stops winning” but Pixar, 21 films and 25 years from their debut feature Toy Story (1995), persistently return undaunted with a bright, energetic entertainment seemingly purpose-built to provoke copious weeping. The Walt Disney subsidiary may not always hit the mark, but its best can move audiences as deftly as the best live-action filmmakers.

Onward, then, is a typically heartbreaking tale, a new crowd-pleasing spin on some old ideas that isn’t as revelatory as WALL-E (2008) or Inside Out (2015) but is an emotionally engaging and vividly compelling adventure of brotherly love.

Diffident teenage elf Ian (Tom Holland) lives with his brash older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) and widowed mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in a land that’s not unlike suburban America, albeit populated with magical fantasy beings. At New Mushroomton High School, Ian tries to invite some cool kids to his 16th birthday but is mortified with embarrassment when Barley picks him up in Guinevere, a hard-rocking version of the GMC Vandura cargo van most famous for its use as the A-Team’s preferred mode of transport.

‘Guinevere’ is no doubt a typically Pixarian wink of nomenclature, given that she was the wife and queen to King Arthur in the legends. Back home, Barley gives Ian a magic staff their father had left him that will bring the late papa elf back to life for 24 hours. Ian is less than savvy with the spells and only manages to bring back his father from the waist down. To see dad fully in the flesh, they must snag a gem from a place called Ravenspoint before sunrise. A rip-roaring adventure beckons for unsure Ian and Barley, far keener due to his love of ‘Quests of Yore’, a role-playing adventure game that concerns dragons, knights and sundry Tolkien-esque delights.

Onward (2020)

Real fun is had once they get on the road and meet Corey (Octavia Spencer), a manticore – part-lion, human and scorpion – who owns a cheesy family restaurant, while a pugnacious motorcycle gang of tiny sprites are so much fun they arguably deserve their own film. The blending of a fantasy world of unusual and often hilarious magical creatures over the banal world of middle America is a great idea of the kind one wishes one had had first.

Disney themselves, long-standing experts of anthropomorphisation, have recent form in similar areas, most recently with Zootopia (2016), in which a rabbit becomes a cop in a big city full of an array of wild animals. Here, director and co-writer Dan Scanlon has crafted a more serious and stronger work than that. The brother’s quest may be undertaken to spend some time with their deceased dad but it becomes clear that the film is really about Ian and Barley’s brotherhood. As so many siblings do, the pair have a tumultuous relationship that is underpinned with real love and Barley is, really, the surrogate father Ian had in place of a living biological one.

The bold, detailed animation is up to Pixar’s usual vertiginously high standards where facial expressions are nuanced and blue elf hair can get noticeably mussed, but of far more importance is Scanlon’s poignant script and the expressive vocal work, particularly of Holland and Pratt who here are masters of meek and loveably dumb, respectively. Pratt in particular is great value, voicing a character not unlike Dewey Finn, Jack Black’s loveable loser in School of Rock (2003), a man who makes up for minimal educational attainment with enthusiasm, vigour and care. Linklater’s film has a broader point of comparison with Onward too. Neither are necessarily world-changing works of art but both bring pure, uncomplicated joy to viewers willing to go along for the ride.


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