Movie Review: Onward

Onward (2020) is the latest dose of proof that Pixar knows how to make some goofy shit be honestly and genuinely gut wrenchingly emotional. Directed by Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), this animated adventure tells the story of brothers Ian and Barley, as they receive a spell scroll and a wizard’s staff on the former’s sixteenth birthday that can be used to summon their late father for 24 hours. When the spell is interrupted halfway through casting, Ian and Barley are met with their father, but only from the waist down, and are then determined to begin a journey to find a crystal that will allow the two brothers to complete the spell.

            The world in Onward is immediately immersive, and thanks to the recent fixation that pop culture has had on the whole Dungeons and Dragons aesthetic, it is also very understandable and, dare I say, hip. It’s a really fun modern twist on the medieval setting, and the history of the world is aptly and neatly explained in a comprehensible few minutes at the start. It all makes a fantastic amount of sense, and you don’t really have to think too much about it to feel absorbed into the world.

            All of the characters, even the dad who spends the entire movie as a pair of sentient legs, are so rich and colourful. The logic around dad-legs isn’t always super clear – like, sometimes he can hear his sons speaking, sometimes he seems to be totally senseless and out of the loop – but it’s never so much that I thought the movie was being ridiculous and taking huge leaps. Ian and Barley have a really vibrant and resonant relationship; there’s love and an understanding of each other, but ultimately they are different and harbour little resentments for each other, the kind most people have with others they’re obscenely close with, the kind you try to bury because you know there’s nothing to be done about it. On top of that, their mother, Laurel, is very sympathetic, funny, and an all-round great side character. She does her mum-Zumba, plans well-intentioned but childish birthday parties for her sixteen year old son, and has a steady boyfriend who has something of a troubled but ultimately light-hearted and caring relationship with her kids.

            While this world was previously powered by magic, wizards and sorcerers, the non-magical population managed to move away from real magic by developing technology and electricity. It’s interesting to see this slightly cynical but, let’s face it, realistic take on a magical universe: when something surrounds us completely, when we experience it every day, it becomes first normal, then mundane, then boring. So, although magic in this world seemed to have more than simple practical applications, it makes sense that when people stopped needing it, it died out as the demand fell away. That said, the mundane-ness around magic was replace by the mundane of the regular world; of vans that can’t stop breaking down, by old, unique taverns becoming lifeless fast food chains, by going to school and doing homework. As Ian and Barley adventure across their homeland of New Mushroom, they manage to awake passion in dormant magic users like the Manticore who runs the old tavern, and the biker-gang pixies who rediscover the usefulness of their wings. Seeing this universe go full circle, from full magic use, to transferring to technology, to finding the fun in magic again, is a refreshing and fun take.

            All in, this was a really enjoyable experience. Onward was a title I wanted to see in cinemas before COVID, and I was really happy to see that I could watch it at home on Disney+, despite it being such a new release (I am directly throwing shade at Mulan). This was fun and emotional, and  so full of colour and flavour, and all I can really do is recommend you watch it for yourself to get a taste of this for yourself.

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