Onward review: Pixar does Dungeons & Dragons

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Tom Holland and Chris Pratt voice elven brothers on a tabletop quest for catharsis in Pixar’s latest – here’s our review of Onward.

It feels as though there’s a real danger of Onward having the same trouble with the steep Pixar grading curve as the studio’s last fantasy effort, 2012’s Brave. Like that film, this is an imaginative endeavour into the animated fantasy territory that has traditionally been dominated by Disney and lampooned by DreamWorks, whose oddness and originality manages to shine through some formulaic trappings.

By way of an amusing prologue, we’re shown a realm of otherworldly creatures in which the discovery of electricity has made life more convenient, and shunted magic and adventure off into the province of hobbyists and geeks. Or to put it more simply, it’s a world where the table-top Dungeons & Dragons analogue is historically accurate.

After setting up the world, Onward zeroes in on fretful teenage elf Ian Lightfoot, (voiced by Tom Holland) who gets the chance to bring his late father back to life for a day as a 16th-birthday gift. His dad died before he was born, so Ian relishes the opportunity to finally meet him. However, he only gets the spell half-right, leaving him and his history nerd brother Barley (Chris Pratt) with a disembodied pair of legs to accompany them on a 24-hour quest to complete the enchantment.

While a new Dungeons & Dragons adaptation has been in development for many years, Pixar may have snuck in and snaffled its chips here. Using an off-brand roleplaying game as an encyclopaedic guide to its world, Onward makes its story a character-driven campaign, complete with quests, spells, and the odd saving throw. In a post-LEGO Movie world, it might be an ideal way to adapt D&D to the screen and it’s not even a D&D movie.

It feels like director Dan Scanlon’s previous handling of Monsters University might have been a primer for the state of New Mushroomton. The film mashes up modern technology and mystical creatures, including urban unicorns, biker pixies, and a fearsome manticore, in a locale that might otherwise have passed for a 1980s Amblin town. Even when the film gets outta town, the design of Barley’s trusty stoner’s van, Guinevere, epitomises the film’s giddy genre mashup.

But the olyphant in the room is that genre mashups rarely feel all that original. After all, this is only the fifth original film Pixar has produced in the last decade, alongside a run of sequels and prequels, and it also recalls a vast array of tongue-in-cheek fantasy movies ranging from Shrek 2 to Netflix’s Bright. Looking closer to home, it’s bound to be compared to the wonderful Coco, which perfectly addressed similar themes of dealing with grief and familial responsibility.

Still, if Onward has a bigger hill to run up because of anyone’s expectations of Pixar, it’s all the better that it brings an extra pair of feet. The dash of Weekend At Bernie’s in the way that Ian and Barley wrangle their dad’s legs on their quest makes this concoction of different influences more distinctively weird. Slapstick aside, the animators somehow manage to imbue a character with real personality, without them seeing, hearing, or talking to anyone else.

But the fantasy footsie isn’t the only aspect that helps Onward transcend its influences. While the top poster-billing of Tom Holland and Chris Pratt (to our knowledge, the only Pixar voice actors to be afforded this honour outside of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen) might remind some of DreamWorks’ casting techniques, the film itself isn’t as obvious as its marketing.

We already know Holland gives good, scatterbrained Peter Parker, but also brings the pathos in a one-sided conversation with a recording of the dad he never knew (find me anything as quietly heartrending as that scene in a Shrek film, naysayers). Likewise, Pratt feels comfortable as the boisterous geek until… well, you’ll see. Beyond their character chemistry, there’s yet more terrific voice work from Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, and Mel Rodriguez to enjoy as well.

The film doesn’t have the nuclear-level weepy properties of Coco in its approach, but then as the title suggests, it goes in a different direction. Although the title nominally refers to Guinevere’s most propulsive gear, it also points the difficult and often treacherous way through grief for its lead characters, both of whom are haunted by the time not spent with a lost loved one. It builds to a really quite special final act for the film, and a movie that overcomes some occasional familiarity to very much earn and justify its own place in the world.

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