Main cast: Tom Holland (Ian Lightfoot), Chris Pratt (Barley Lightfoot), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Laurel Lightfoot), Octavia Spencer (Corey), Mel Rodriguez (Colt Bronco), and Kyle Bornheimer (Wilden Lightfoot)
Director: Dan Scanlon
Those blue things on the movie poster are supposed to be elves. Hilariously, even if they didn’t resemble the stereotypical skinny, androgynous pointy-eared snowflakes that elves tend to be in fantasy, the elder brother Barley Lightfoot is a big-time tabletop RPG and card game fanboy who treats the equivalents of Dungeons & Dragons and Magic the Gathering in this setting as philosophical treatises to live by.
This one is set in a world where elves, pixies, and other fairy tale creatures live side by side. It’s like Earth, only the humans are replaced by woo-woo creatures. Mind you, the unicorns behave like stray dogs, so it’s not exactly central casting city. In this setting, magic once was everywhere, but over time, as technology gradually take over these folks’ lives, it becomes rarer and rarer, with only certain individuals born with an affinity for magic being able to cast spells.
Wilden Lightfoot was one such individual, but he’s dead. His sixteen-year old son Ian is also one, but he is untrained. Ian is a typical nerd who is unsure about himself and yet, at the same time, snobby enough to believe that he is the smartest individual in the room. His older brother Barley, the big fantasy fanboy, is the earnest, corny, goofball type that was considered the weirdo in school, which in turn only makes it harder for Ian to fit in with his peers. Their mother, Laurel, is seeing Colt, the centaur cop that both lads aren’t exactly fond of.
On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, Laurel hands over a gift from Wilden. It’s a magical staff along with a phoenix ruby and a scroll containing a spell that can bring back someone from the dead for 24 hours. Naturally, the lads want to bring back Wilden. Due to his inexperience, however, Ian only manages to bring back the lower body of his body. Oops. Ever the optimist, Barley is confident that they can get it right the second time around. All they need is to locate another phoenix ruby – all they have to do is to rely on the clues and tropes found in his favorite tabletop and card games! This plan may just be bizarre enough to work…
I initially expected the worst in Onward, because the trailer I saw was pretty dire. The trailer made the whole thing look like some slapstick comedy, which is not something I typically enjoy. The actual movie, though, is a road trip adventure, yes, but there is an underlying strong theme of brotherhood and family that actually hits all the good spots in my feels. This isn’t a movie about a father and his son, it’s about Ian and Barley finally accepting one another for who and what they are. This is where chemistry is important, and Tom Holland and Chris Pratt have a believable brotherly rapport between them. The two Lightfoot brothers aren’t sickly-cute or anything like that; in fact, Ian does behave like a believable teenage nerd – self-centered, thinks he knows best about everything, and lacking the confidence to break out of his shell – while Barley turns out to be something more well-rounded than a typical goofball. The emotional scenes later in the movie can hit hard, because these characters feel real despite looking like the result of a drug-fueled mating frenzy between an orc and a smurf. Hence, the feels come off as genuine.
The one drawback to this one is how the fantastical action elements feel like it’s slapped together as filler around the core emotional aspects of the movie. There is human drama here that even adults – especially adults, one can argue – can enjoy, but the rest of the movie resembles the plot of a Sunday morning cartoon. It can be hard to reconcile these two aspects of the film; I feel like the people behind it put a lot of effort in one area, and hastily rushed through the rest with far less enthusiasm.
Still, Onward is, I feel, one of the better animated movies that have come out these few months, and it’s definitely worth a look.