Director: Dan Scanlon
Writers: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin
Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez
Kids movies always provide a chance to get across certain themes and lessons to youngsters that adults may find difficult to broach with them. Pixar and certainly Disney are no strangers to depicting such things in their films and guiding young viewers through experiences that life may one day throw at them. Onward is the two studios’ latest team-up, a fairy-tale with modern twists and characters that will be familiar to anyone who has every played Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft and the like. It holds many of those said themes and lessons that children will encounter as they become more aware of themselves and the world around them. Do Disney/Pixar successfully navigate this world for kids, and adults, whilst providing something entertaining, or does it struggle to balance the two and create something worth a family’s time?
Set in a fantasy world where magic once freely existed alongside creatures considered magical and mythical, Onward introduces us to two elven brothers, Ian (Holland) and Barley (Pratt). They live with their mum, Laurel (Louis-Dreyfuss), in a town called New Mushroomton. Their world is much less fantastical than it once was and mirrors more of our own, with electricity and technology (and more) rendering the use of magic redundant and causing it to all but cease to exist. Ian and Barley’s father died when they were both very young, with Ian too young to have any memories. On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, the brothers receive a gift from their father – a magical staff and gem that together have the power to bring their father back for just one day. However, things go awry when they attempt to bring him back, and they are left with just their father’s legs and feet. The brothers embark on a quest together to find another rare gem to use to complete the spell, along the way learning to work together and trust each other, but they have only until sunset the following day to finish what they started.
As previously mentioned, Disney/Pixar do like to ground many of their stories in real life by making them relatable and recognisable in many ways. With Onward, the overarching themes of family and death are played out in a sincere and sensitive way. The death of a parent is something many children have faced or will face, some never knowing the parent and having no real memory of them. It’s only natural that they would want to know what the parent was like as a person, and if they would be proud of the person their child will/has become. That is Ian’s part of the story. The questions he has and the struggles he faces will be familiar to some, and hopefully the outcome may bring some comfort to them. Barley’s side of the story is that he lives with a few memories of their father, so in a way the loss was more substantial for him. His own emotional journey will again be familiar to some, so the film will appeal to those with similar experiences to either characters. Even their mother’s story, dealing with becoming a widow and a single mother, is handled well and could be somewhat reassuring to parents in similar positions.
The setting of the story itself, to include fantasy and magic in a somewhat legendary world, is a pleasant, childlike angle to take, and it’s nice for children to be able to imagine what they would do or say if they were able to see a parent (or anyone of significant meaning to them) again. But it’s a thin line to tread when a young child is still relying on imagination to get them through hard times. There has to be a sense of realism that deals sensitively with the subject of death, and Onward manages to do this through the light use of humour and the bond between Ian and Barley (and also their mother on the fringe of the story). The story is based on the experience of director/co-writer Scanlon, who lost his own father as a child. To know the story was born from someone’s real life brings it a depth it may have struggled with had that experience not been used as an integral part of the movie’s conception. If you’re a parent concerned about what the story may leave in your child’s mind, particularly if any of it resonates with your/their real life, you can rest assured that the film’s themes have been handled with due care, understanding and compassion. Your child may have questions afterwards, whether they can relate or not, but hopefully this film will help you answer them.
Holland and Pratt are most familiar as having played big characters within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Spider-Man and Star-Lord, respectively), so their voices as Ian and Barley may sound familiar to younger viewers, perhaps even to the point of being comforting. Despite both being considerably older than their animated counterparts, they get across perfectly the young relationship between the brothers, especially from Barley’s side. Louis-Dreyfus has a lovely lilt to her voice that works well for Laurel as a caring mother, although the character is perhaps just a little too understanding when it comes to some of the things her sons get up to. Spencer has an interesting supporting role as a Manticore who is at first an important part of the quest but then quickly becomes rather redundant and nothing much more than occasional comic relief. The same goes for Rodriguez’s Colt Bronco, a centaur police officer who is also dating Laurel. For a character who is something of a stepfather to Ian and Barley he is curiously left on the side-lines a lot. There could definitely have been another subplot there surrounding a new father figure in the boy’s lives, but it also may have arguably been too much to add to an already fairly heavy plot.
Preceded nicely by a Simpsons short in cinemas (easy to do now Disney owns 20th Century Fox and, therefore, The Simpsons), Onward is a film that deals well with its important topics and how it depicts them to audiences of all ages. Ultimately, life isn’t always fair, and the way in which the characters come to terms with this could be beneficial to those in the audience going through similar trying times. Overall, it’s entertaining and full of heart-warming moments, with the classic (if you can call it that now) CGI that we’re familiar with of Pixar and a story that provides the humour and comfort that we’re familiar with of Disney films.