Movie Review: Onward (2020)

TL;DR – In a magical world where magic has been largely forgotten, two elven brothers seek to find their way in life. They believe the key will be resurrecting their dead father for one day. When the magic they cast goes sideways, they set off on a quest to complete the spell and in the process discover that their growth can come from each other.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Onward sets the premise of a world where magic exists but no one can be bothered to learn it because technological advancements supplant the need to conjure spells. Before if you wanted to illuminate a dark room, you cast a spell to create a ball of light, now you simply use a lightbulb and switch it on.

While magic has faded away, replaced by technology, the varied creatures in this world still exist. Elves, trolls, centaurs, fairies, mermaids etc. co-exist in a world that now has smartphones, televisions and indoor plumbing.

On his sixteenth birthday, we meet Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), a teenage elf going through confidence issues. His mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives him a gift from his late father, Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer) who passed away before Ian was born. The gift is a wizard staff, a phoenix gem, and a letter that contains a spell that will allow Ian to resurrect his father for one day.

Ian has an older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt) who loves role-playing games and has an enthusiasm for the mystic arts that tends to mess things up at the wrong time. It is somewhat amusing seeing an elf obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons (or in this case, the “Quests of Yore” (QoY) role-playing game) in a world filled with fantasy creatures. I am sure there is some deeper meaning about imagining a mystical world within a mystical world, but I digress.

QoY-loving Barley goes bananas over Ian’s gift and seizes the staff, gem and spell to try and cast it but without success. Later that evening, Ian laments that the magic didn’t work as he wants nothing more than to meet his dad. He reads over the letter and whispers the words of the spell and presto, the staff and gem activate. Ian grabs the staff, magic coursing through it, and slowly his father begins to emerge. Starting with his feet in purple socks and leather shoes and moving upwards. Barley appears at Ian’s bedroom door and sees Ian is struggling to maintain control of the staff, he rushes in saying he can help only for the spell to be interrupted, shattering the phoenix gem. The brothers discover that Wilden has only been partially resurrected, up to his waist.

This is Pixar in true form. The process of a half-resurrected Wilden and his ability to communicate to his sons given his top half is missing (along with their sons being able to communicate to him) is cleverly done through drumming his feet. It also opens up for any number of comic moments as Wilden’s lower half fumbles his way along with his sons in search of another phoenix gem to resurrect the rest of him.

For all of its action and adventure, however, Onward is at its heart a coming-of-age film that examines the importance of reflecting on the past, looking to the future, while living in the present. For Ian, he creates a list of the things he wants to do with his dad – “play catch”, “take a walk”, “have a heart to heart”, “laugh together”, “driving lesson” and “share my life with him”. By the end, he discovers he has achieved all these things with his brother. He realises the most important thing (that he has taken for granted, or indeed treated with contempt) is the bond he has with Barley.

The film is also just as much about Barley’s growth as it is Ian’s coming-of-age. Barley’s exuberance, optimism and boundless energy masks are deep pain. A pain of regret over not being able to say goodbye to his dying father due to fear even though he was afforded the opportunity. Ian gifts his older brother the opportunity to say goodbye and Barley is able to finally move forward also.

Onward is a slice of Pixar magic worthy of repeat viewing.

8 out of 10

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