Onward (March 6, 2020) Cert U, 107 mins.
Any movie containing the line, “Oh, no! A gelatinous cube!” has to be worth seeing, and Onward certainly is. Pixar Animation (part of Disney) has taken us to many strange places and introduced us to many odd characters since it was founded in 1986, but Pixar veteran Dan Scanlon’s suburban fantasy could be the strangest yet. After royal sisterly bonding in Frozen 2, we have elf brotherly bonding in Onward. Although magic is at the core of both films, the nature of the quests the brothers embark on reflect their gender and age as well as their universe: half new millennium suburban L.A.; half mythical and folklore bucolic. The cast is terrific, and the story will bring a smile to your face and leave a tear in your eye.
In a prologue, we see how the progress of civilisation has left the word bereft of magic. New solutions have been found to mundane and cosmic puzzles. Hopefully, the narration tells us, there’s a little magic left in all of us, even in the age of video games, which to many is a kind of magic.
If the film is set up like a video adventure game, it’s in keeping with 15-going-on-16-year-old Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), a sweet, awkward and insecure high school student who longs for guidance from the father he never knew. Ian’s older brother Barley (Chris Pratt), 19, is the last person Ian would turn to.
Barley, a “human” accident waiting to happen, is as big, burly and clumsy as Ian is lanky and fragile. While Ian is the studious type, Barley is into cars, and has a close relationship with his rickety van, Gwynevere. The brothers live with their upbeat, “can-do” and sympathetic mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, also playing a determined mother in Downhill this week) in a mushroom shaped house in New Mushroomton. The son’s inherited the long elf ears from mum, and Barley has inherited her bulk. Ian seems to take after dad.
A frequent presence in the house is Colt Bronco, (Mel Rodriguez), a good-natured policeman and Laurel’s boyfriend. The various folkloric and mythical creatures are not segregated (there are cyclops on the police force and at Ian’s school) and Bronco, if the name hasn’t given it away, is a centaur. The humour behind Laurel’s boyfriend being a centaur is for the adults in this “U” certificate film, or those who studied their classics.
For her son’s 16th birthday, Laurel plans a proper party with a cake, and Ian summons up the courage to ask a few school mates to join him after school. Just as the co-eds accept the invitation, Barley pulls up in his van, embarrassing Ian to the point where he calls off the party, leaving his fellow-students bemused. More than ever, Ian wants to become better and bolder like his father.
If the chaotic Barley takes the party off the table, there are still the presents. But there is only one that Ian wants. Laurel presents the boys with a gift their late father left for them to have when both have turned 16. And here’s where it gets a bit Harry Pottery with spells and a wizard’s staff, leading to the videogame-structured quest.
When their father became ill, he left a letter for Ian, whom he never knew, and for Barley, who was just a toddler. Along with that, he left a mysterious spell, staff and a special gem that, if all goes well, will bring him back from the dead for 24 hours.
If Barley has spent his life learning Quest, Ian is the brother with a knack for carrying out the magic. Prompted by Barley, he aims the sparking wand in front of him, utters the words, and abra cadabra, the shape of a man is materialising before our eyes from the ground up.
But when the force of the wand becomes too strong for the scrawny boy, Barley tries to buttress him, inadvertently breaking the gem and breaking the spell. The boys are left with the bottom half of dad: a waist, a pair of trousers with two legs and two expressive feet, clad in leather shoes, that seem to be communicating in a kind of Fred Astairean Morse code.
Barley wants Ian to live a little, and take risks, but he suffers from a credibility problem and Ian isn’t sure that Barley has anything positive to teach him. Yet sticking with Barley is Ian’s only hope of finding the new gemstone which will enable them to summon up dad’s top half. He optimistically jots down a list of everything that 24 hours with dad will make possible, from learning to drive, to playing catch, to sharing his life story.
So, they load dad into the van and head for Corey’s (Octavia Spencer), a fierce manticore warrior in her youth who has lost, or so she believes, the will to fight. Now, Corey is a restaurant owner who has a map that Barley hopes will lead them to the Phoenix Gem. But the longer it takes them to find the substitute gem, the less time they have to spend with dad.
Anyone who hasn’t been to a race-against-the-clock movie probably isn’t old enough to see Onward. The time limitation on the spell is not only part and partial of many quest video games, but of a myriad of thrillers and adventure movies.
Armed with the map (although the brothers bicker incessantly about which road to take to get to their destination), the teenagers set off on a journey that will test them to the limit. During the quest, the two brothers have to learn to trust and respect one another while Ian has an epiphany when he takes another look at his list.
If Laurel seems to be out of the picture, the resourceful mother comes to the rescue of her sons late in the quest, aided by Corey. They are the two strong women in a film that is essentially about boys, inspired, we are told, by Scanlon’s relationship with his older brother.