Arguably, we haven’t had an outstanding animated feature in quite some time. 2019 was a dud. While Pixar’s Toy Story 4 may have won the Academy Award, it still found itself surrounded by lackluster features, including Frozen 2, The Missing Link, and How To Train Your Dragon. Thankfully, Pixar is back with its original story, Onward. Let me say that I love the basic setup to Onward. It’s one I thought about for over a decade and am glad to see someone bring to the big screen finally.
Director Dan Scanlon’s set up for the story is simple. What if the world of Dungeons and Dragons really existed so long ago? What if Tolkien’s Middle Earth was real at one time? This is the world of Onward takes place in. Ostensibly set in the “present” when the modern amenities are slowly replacing the old-fashioned convenience of magic. Instead of creating sources of light in the darkness, these people rely on lightbulbs. As it became easier to flip a switch than conjure a spell, people stop using magic altogether.
The story of Onward centers on two elven brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), who are being raised by their single mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Ian is turning eighteen today, and being the shy kid that he is, can’t find the courage to invite people over for his party. Barley, on the other hand, more than makes up for Ian’s shyness. He’s an over-confident teen and an uber-fan of the world’s version of D&D. He knows all the creatures, magical artifacts, history, lore, and spells. He goes out daily on quests and is arrested occasionally to prevent an enchanted landmark from being bulldozed/gentrified.
“The two have twenty-four hours to find another Phoenix Gem and restore the top half of their father…”
On this special day, Laurel has a surprise for her sons. Apparently, the boys’ father left a magic staff and gem, along with instructions on how they can use the items. Barley immediately identifies the set as the Phoenix Gem, and with the accompanying spell, will bring their father back for one day—one glorious day for the boys to spend with their father.
Though Barley knows what to do with the staff, he is unable to conjure the magic. Of course, that honor goes to Ian, who, new to magic, gets the gem to work, but his inexperience brings back their father… only from the waist down though. So, a quest is now before them. The two have twenty-four hours to find another Phoenix Gem and restore the top half of their father before the sun sets.
In the tradition of Toy Story, Up, The Good Dinosaur, and Inside Out, there’s a quest to be had. The boys and their father’s lower half, must get the map to the Phoenix Gem from the Manticore (who runs a medieval-style pizza joint), then outrun the horde of evil creatures (the police), and finally navigate treacherous terrains (in their van) while finding clues and solving puzzles.