It is hard to believe that Toy Story burst onto our screens 25 years ago, changing animation forever. While at the same time embedding the beautiful worlds of Pixar into our collective consciousness. However, as time has passed, has the magic of Pixar slowly diminished? And can Pixar still find original stories that engage and inspire new generations of children and adults alike? Well, based on their first original story since the emotionally complex delights of Coco, the answer is a resounding yes. Here the magical world of Onward explores themes of grief, male relationships and brotherhood, in a colourful fantasy world that is accessible and entertaining.
Many have claimed that Onward opts for safe Pixar territory rather than pushing the boundaries of the studio’s work. However, this simplistic view does not consider the complexity of the themes sitting at the heart of Pixar’s latest film.
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Set in a fantasy world that has long 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 world. Here, we meet two elf brothers, the insecure and tender Ian (Tom Holland) and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt). Both boys, raised by their mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), after the death of their father from an illness before Ian was born.
As Ian reaches his 16th birthday, Laurel gives the boys a mysterious present left by their dad. A relic of the past in the form of a wizard’s staff and a rare phoenix gem, alongside a handwritten spell, that, if correctly delivered, can 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.
Onward excels in a narrative that explores the differences between both of our brothers. Here Barley’s world is surrounded by the escapism of old magic and folklore. His life, a mix of roleplaying games, positivity and fantasy. One that those around him, including his younger brother, view as immaturity. Meanwhile, the more serious Ian longs for something his brother once had ‘a dad’, someone he can share his emotions with while building his confidence. Ian’s insecurities are embedded in a feeling of having missed out on a male role model. However, despite the differences between our brothers, their bond of love will ultimately lead to success or failure in their fantastical quest.
Tom Holland and Chris Pratt star in Onward ©️Walt Disney/Pixar 2020
However, Onward does not simply reflect brotherly love in the face of grief, as here, the role of the boys mum also sits centre stage. Her love for her boys glowing as she tries to protect them while accepting and acknowledging the loss of their father. Of course, this may all sound like the formulaic Pixar emotional rollercoaster audiences have become accustomed to, and it’s fair to say, Onward does follow a tried and tested studio template without much deviation. However, the brief introduction of a gay character is a significant step forward for Pixar, which is long overdue.
Onward is wrapped in love, as Director Dan Scanlon, whose own father passed away when he was young, explores his childhood experiences through animation. This ultimately 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 at the same time embracing the importance of memory, family and communication in moving forward.
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However, Onward is even more 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 in each beautifully crafted scene. Its stunning animation leaping from the screen as it wraps the audience in a blanket of beautifully realised fantasy. Equally outstanding are the performances of Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, as they elevate the journey of Ian and Barley into something extraordinary, in a film that shines with adventure, love and hope.
Director: Dan Scanlon
Tom Holland also appears in Spider-Man Far from Home