“Long ago the world was full of wonder and adventure,” starts the opening voiceover, going on to detail how mundanity has now replaced magic. The words are potently illustrated by dirt-streaked unicorns eating out of overturned bins, a mermaid lolling in a child’s inflatable paddling pool, and an overweight cop-centaur saying, “ I own a vehicle, I don’t need to run.” Fortunately for us, Onward, after a rather slow start, proves the good folk of Pixar still practice merriment and wonderment.
Opening in the fantasy (but not too-fantasy) suburban settlement of New Mushroomton, we meet Ian and Barley Lightfoot (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt), two teenage elves who live with their mum, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Their father passed away when Barley was young and Ian was in the womb. But now, on his 16th birthday, Ian receives a present that his dad instructed was to be saved for this very day: a wizard’s staff and a Phoenix gem. Say the included spell and their dad will materialise for 24 hours. Only the Phoenix gem breaks halfway through and their dad only appears from the waist down, meaning the brothers must urgently quest to find another magical stone in order to meet their dad’s top half.
Solid but lacking Pixar’s fairy-dust sparkle up until this point, Onward then grows ever brighter as it hits the road; like timid, straitlaced Ian, it blooms in confidence and becomes infused with magical powers. Naturally the brothers meet all manner of colourful characters upon their journey – the Hells Angels sprites and Octavia Spencer’s “winged-lion-scorpion-lady” Manticore are standouts – and multiple dangerous obstacles, including a “bottomless pit”, block their true path.
Directed with verve and an eye for vivid detail by Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), Onward is one of Pixar’s funniest pictures, having, in its own way, as much of a riot with the fantasy adventure genre as the Pythons did with Holy Grail. The Invisible Man-style gag of the brothers dressing their dad’s missing top half with clothes and sunglasses is a joke that keeps on giving (the floppy ‘torso’ is a masterclass of physical comedy), while a couple of surprise left turns on the journey add to the liveliness. There’s also a low-in-the-mix commentary on just how homogenised our world has become, and salient life lessons to be gleaned (by adults as much as kids) en route to a third act that is thrilling and touching.
Is this A-list Pixar? No, it’s several rungs below the Toy Story movies, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Inside Out. But it is one of the best of the rest, and that’s more than good enough.