Cert – U, Run-time – 1 hour 42 minutes, Director – Dan Scanlon
Two brothers (Tom Holland, Chris Pratt) go on a quest to bring back their dad for just one day.
It’s clear from the second the audience enters the board-game inspired fantasy realm of Pixar’s latest feature that establishes it as something very different from what the studio has produced in the past. While all the standard Pixar elements are there this almost feels like a rather un-Pixar film, however, this is not to say that the quality is anything away from what the animation giant has offered in the past. There’s something about the almost mythical style of the world in which the film is set that helps to provide it with a feeling similar to that of a number of 80’s classics, especially the likes of Time Bandits and Labyrinth.
Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) are two elf brothers living in a world of pixies, unicorns, dragons, centaurs, cyclopes and gelatinous cubes. Ian has just turned 16 and is looking to turn his life around, become more confident, socialise more and pluck up the courage to invite people to a party. However, Barley is a much more confident, unashamedly loud figure. His life revolves around board games such as Quest Of Yore – a role-playing game that he claims is based on the factual history of the world in which the film is set in. It’s this game that helps to lead him and Ian on their quest to find a phoenix gem that will help to cast a visitation spell to bring their dad back for just one day. The catch is that they’ve already brought back half of their father, the waist down.
Barley has a limited amount of memories about his Dad, whereas younger brother Ian has none, his aim is to just get to meet his Dad just once in his life. It’s this that very much creates the emotional core of the film, and it’s also this that proves this to be a Pixar film. While Onward isn’t exactly the big punch that some might expect from the studio that brought audiences Up, Inside Out, Monsters Inc and Toy Story 3 there are still one or two empathetic beats, especially towards the end of the film.
What strikes most about Onward is it’s design and humour. The animation is, as expected, a high quality. The studio that helped to master hair and water stands out now with realistic looking sweat on mythical creatures! This is mostly noticed in the first few scenes of the film, as the plot is gradually forming bit by bit. It’s said that sometimes if you’re noticing how great the animation is you’re not properly focusing on the film and the plot; this certainly isn’t always the case. But, in the case of Onward this is part of a problem. There are still some chuckles and good ideas, but as a whole the start of the film isn’t the most engaging thing, it’s relatively average. However, as the plot begins to take pace and the road-trip element of the film begins things begin to get better, and more enjoyable.
The true spirit of adventure and exploration that the film takes great pride in exploring, with its characters of all shapes and sizes. The various references to classic fantasy films – a restaurant displays a sign declaring “now serving 2nd breakfast” – and board games all help to further fuel the energy and creative nature of the film. Through the various landscapes of motorways, run-down taverns and caves there’s a lot that the viewer experiences throughout the journey, and the design of each setting is highly detailed. All of this happens while the central themes and ideas, which while fairly simple, are never forgotten. There’s a fair deal of heart about the film, and a clear passion for the setting and inspirations from the creators, and even a number of the cast members.
Aside from the road-trip that the brothers, and the bottom half of their father, go on one of the most entertaining ideas that the film presents is that of the boys mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) travelling behind them with the assistance of The Manticore (Octavia Spencer – who sounds as if she’s having delightful fun voicing the character), who claims that without her help the central duo will unleash a curse that will lead them to not be able to meet their dad, and could put their own lives in danger. This is as close to a villain that the film has. While the idea of the threat lingers, and in some scenes helps to escalate the fantastical nature of the piece. Yet, the lack of an actual villain, or even villainous presence, helps the film. It doesn’t exactly feel fresh, but it definitely allows for the tone of adventure to break through even more, and allows for more concentration on the central characters.
Onward is a film that revels in its basis. Paying homage to fantasy films and games that inspire it, and allowing them to fuel the creativity and imagination of the basis of the film. Whether exploring the various mythical creatures or the magic that lines of the film there’s a lot to like. While it takes a bit of time for everything to piece together and the road-trip to start once it does the plot, and the clear fun that the cast are having voicing these colourful and well-designed characters, help to bring the audience into the world of the film. A fantastical land rooted deeply in detail and thought, that never distract from the plot once it starts. The heart and humour are there, and while the tears aren’t present the finished product is certainly a worthwhile effort for all ages. Sometimes for everyone to enjoy no matter where they stand on fantasy, and also a great way to hopefully introduce kids to classic 80’s titles in a similar vein.
The tears don’t exactly flow in the emotional moments of Onward, but that doesn’t stop the adventure from being a funny, enjoyable and excellently designed one. Calling back to the likes of Labyrinth and Time Bandits this is certainly something different from Pixar, but it’s still a success.