The release of Onward couldn’t have been more disastrously timed. We were all set to view it in an actual movie theatre when the pandemic hit big and cinemas had to close their doors. Now here it is on Disney +, and, like so many of its illustrious Pixar brethren, this is a fabulous slice of family-friendly entertainment with a brilliant concept at its core.
The story takes place in a fantasy world, where magic has somehow become unappreciated by its exotic inhabitants. Here, unicorns are simply pesky critters that regularly raid the dustbins, ancient artefacts are best sourced in thrift stores, and the local Manticore’s tavern has been styled to look like TGI Friday’s, complete with a karaoke machine.
Elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) reaches his sixteenth birthday, but feels too self-conscious to invite his friends from high school to his party. He’s also somewhat overshadowed by his brash older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), who is obsessed with fantasy role-playing games and seems to feel it’s his duty to embarrass his younger bro at every opportunity. The boys’ mom, Laurel (Julia Louise-Dreyfus), has her hands full keeping the peace. Since the untimely death of her first husband, Wilden, she’s remarried to clumsy centaur cop, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), a nice guy whose speciality seems to be knocking over the furniture. Ian, meanwhile, is still mourning the death of Wilden, who died just after he was born. It irks him that Barley has something he has never enjoyed – memories of their father.
But one of Ian’s birthday presents is an ancient staff, containing a rare Phoenix gem – something that, if used correctly, can conjure a ‘visitation spell.’ It has the power to bring Wilden back for just one day. When the boys attempt to use the staff, something goes disastrously wrong and they are obliged to embark on a perilous quest in order to rectify their error.
They have twenty-four hours. As the time ticks steadily away, their mission becomes ever more complicated…
What ensues is the usual Pixar mix of broad comedy and bitter-sweet sentiment – the boys encounter legions of mythological characters along the way (including Octavia Spencer’s Manticore and a bunch of motorbike-riding sprites). There are frantic chases and gasp-inducing perils for the boys to overcome and, as their time begins to run out, some genuine suspense is generated. Of course, this being a Pixar film, there’s also a central message and it’s to the writers’ credit that, near the film’s conclusion, they opt to pull off something really daring and manage it with aplomb.
This is exactly what’s needed right now. Brilliantly crafted, deceptively simple, heartwarming and, above all, great fun. In these harrowing times, what more can we reasonably ask?