It is hard to believe that Toy Story burst onto our screens 25 years ago, changing animation forever by introducing us to the beautiful world of Pixar. With their first original story since the emotionally complex delights of Coco, Onward explores themes of grief, difference and brotherly love within a colourful fantasy world. Set in a world that has forgotten the magic of its past, the suburban streets of New Mushroomton reflect our own cosmopolitan and commercially driven world. Here unicorns, elves and fairies have succumbed to the modern trappings of a tech-driven society – a Middle Earth transformed into a McDonalds fuelled capitalist utopia. Here, we meet two elf brothers, the insecure and tender Ian (Tom Holland) and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt).
Both boys were raised by their mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), after the death of their father from an illness before Ian was born. But on Ian’s 16th birthday, Laurel gives the boys a mysterious present left by their dad. As they unwrap the mysterious gift, they are greeted by a relic from the past in the form of a wizard’s staff and a rare phoenix gem. But alongside this staff is a handwritten spell that, if correctly delivered, will bring their dad back from the dead for just 24 hours. However, when both boys attempt the spell, it backfires, with only their dad’s legs becoming visible—leading them on a quest to find a second Phoenix gem that can bring back his top half before the sun goes down.
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Onward excels in exploring the differences between the brothers, with Barley’s world surrounded by the escapism of old magic and folklore. At the same time, Ian longs for something his brother once had, a dad, someone he can share his emotions with while building his confidence. Here Ian’s insecurities are embedded in a feeling of missing out on a male role model. But can our brothers achieve their quest, despite their differences?
Onward is wrapped in love, humour and warmth as director Dan Scanlon, whose own father passed away when he was young, explores his childhood experience through animation. This elevates Onward from being just another Pixar film to something far more personal. Here we have a film that reflects and understands the emotional complexity of bereavement in childhood. While simultaneously embracing the importance of memory, family and communication in moving forward.
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However, Onward is also impressive in its ability to wrap these emotionally complex themes into a world that shines with colour and adventure. Here Scanlon pays homage to Indiana Jones, Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings; its stunning animation leaping from the screen as it wraps the audience in a blanket of beautifully realised fantasy.
Director: Dan Scanlon
Tom Holland also appears in Spider-Man Far from Home