"Leave it to Disney Pixar to give a lively, fun and caring personality to a pair of animated legs."
Onward marks Dan Scanlon’s second feature-length directorial role at Disney Pixar, following on from 2013’s mixed reception of Monsters University. This time his writer/director role is without the pressure of telling the story of already beloved characters. We’re introduced to elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) as he reaches his 16th birthday, and is struggling with the grief of never meeting his father, who passed away before he was born. Because we can’t have a Disney movie without some kind of family tragedy.
Ian’s mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is trying her best to raise two teenage boys on her own, and Ian’s older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), is an RPG loving nerd who cares not about real-world responsibilities like having a career, but instead chooses to spend most of his time playing the Dungeons & Dragons-esque Quests of Yore, or riding around town with his trusty steed - the junk-heap Unicorn-emblazoned van - Guinevere.
Set in a beautifully animated, magical and mythical backdrop that has evolved into a typical modern suburban town, highways have taken over fields and forests, and the dangerous, dingey taverns have become themed family restaurants.
The opening narration explains how technology and laziness destroyed this fantastical worlds magic: “Long ago the world was full of magic… over time the magic faded away… but I hope there’s a little magic left in you”.
It’s not long into the film we find out this was in fact the letter Ian and Barley’s father wrote to be given to the brothers when they were both over 16. This letter, along with the included magical staff, spell and rare gem, should be the key to them bringing their dad back for a day, to spend the time with him they never had. Only the spell goes wrong and the boys are left with their father’s animated legs and 24 hours on the clock to find the rare Phoenix gem to bring the rest of their dad back. Away they go on their great quest - not unlike the ones in Barley’s precious Quests of Yore.
These are roles we’ve seen Tom Holland and Chris Pratt in before, the awkward teenager Ian, desperately trying to find himself and fit in, as well as struggling with the loss of a father figure isn’t unlike Spider-Man’s Peter Parker, Holland so brilliantly brought to life in the MCU. The rowdy, excitable, always right, act first ask questions never, Barley is Chris Pratt in pretty much every role of recent, but in this case, especially with his love of mix-tapes, and the sensitive side we see later on in the film, feels akin to Guardians of the Galaxy’s Star-Lord.
The supporting characters add just enough to the movie to make them memorable and relevant (and make for more merchandise opportunities) without distracting a younger audience from the main plot, in classic Disney Pixar style. There’s centaur cop Colt Bronco (Kyle Bornheimer), who just so happens to be the Lightfoot boys’ new step-dad. Officer Spector (Lena Waithe) is Disney’s first LGBT character, who empathises with Bronco as a step-parent, having a tough time with her girlfriend’s kid. The mythical and mighty Manticore (Octavia Spencer) acts as quest-master, and adds another strong female character to the mix, along with the boys’ self-proclaimed warrior mother. There’s even a couple of characters that feel reminiscent of Monsters Inc; Tracey Ullman’s Pawn Shop owner Grecklin feels almost like the new Roz.
And then there’s Dad. Wilden Lightfoot, magically brought back from the dead, well the bottom half of him anyway. Leave it to Disney Pixar to give a lively, fun and caring personality to a pair of animated legs, as we see them reach out to comfort the boys and hilariously enjoy a dance, feeling the rhythmic vibrations from Barley’s van.
Dan Scanlon has said that this movie was born from his own childhood grief, losing his father in a car accident when he was a baby and his older brother just three years old. He’s poured his heart and soul into this movie, right down to incorporating the cassette tape of his father’s voice his aunt and uncle gave to him when he was 16, just like the one Ian has at the start of the film, tear-jerkingly trying to converse with the recorded phrases. Even without the knowledge of how much this movie means to Scanlon, and his family, it’s an affirming watch and sincerely makes you want to hug everyone you love for an uncomfortable amount of time.
For a U rated kids film, it’s a pretty tense and perilous journey, that had me gasping and cringing my way through. This just shows how much you’re unwittingly drawn into caring about these characters and their quest, something the creative studios involved have always had a knack for doing well (admittedly sometimes better than others). The brothers are both relatable for adult viewers, everyone has times when they feel like a loner or a loser, and most of us have had to deal with the loss of a loved one during our lifetimes. And for younger viewers, they’re goofy, loveable dudes who make you giggle enough times for you to care if they fall into a bottomless pit.
This might not be the best Disney Pixar movie ever, especially to those of us who have grown up during what we consider to be the glory days of the studio, with the likes of Toy Story and Monsters Inc. But it is a wholesome family flick, ticking all the boxes of all the tropes you could expect and would want to see in a Disney Pixar movie, and plays perfectly on the infamous ‘if you can dream it, you can do it’ attitude Disney fans adore. With adorable characters, and a fun and heartwarming narrative, Onward could well be the one Disney Pixar movie that sticks with a young fan forever, just like the 90s/early 00s ones did with us now adult fans.