Life is one big quest that none of us have a map for. It is filled with plenty of obstacles and great sadness, but those who we travel with that makes life worth living. This is the message that Pixar’s latest animated adventure Onward conveys in its own Dungeons & Dragons loving way.
Onward takes place in a fantasy world that was once filled with adventure and magic. It is a place where wizards, elves, sprites, cyclops, and other unique creatures lived with a shared sense of wonder. All of this changed with the discovery of electricity. As technology expanded, society got lazier and increasingly complacent with the conveniences that life now offered them.
Why would a centaur chase after prey when they can simply drive to the supermarket or, better yet, order in? The downside to a world of cell phones and television is that generations grew up not knowing their true past. Tales of magic and adventures became fables that corporations sold to the masses via board games and themed restaurants.
Only rocker and frequent screw-up Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt), an elf who rides around in a beat-up 1970s van with a spray-painted Pegasus on the side, seems interested in the ancient world. Of course, most people see him as a tree hugging loser with no potential — a point that is a source of embarrassment for his awkward 16-year-old brother Ian (Tom Holland). However, Ian’s eyes are awakened to the fact that magic exists when their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), gives the brothers a gift from their deceased father.
The package turns out to be an old wizard’s staff, complete with a spell that will bring their father back for one day. Of course, things go awry and only the lower half of their father returns. Needing a specific item to finish the spell, and with only 24-hours to do so before their dad disappears forever, the brothers embark on a journey that will test their medal in more ways than one.
Pixar’s Weekend at Bernie‘s?
Playing like a kid-friendly mashup of Weekend at Bernie’s, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, Onward charms as it moves from one comedic set piece to the next. The film hits many of the familiar beats one expects when characters try to conceal a dead-ish body all over town. Each step of the way Ian learns a new spell that will no doubt come in handy when the film switches to a full-on fantasy action film in its climax.
As entertaining as the climax is, the tonal shift in the latter half feels at odds with the lighthearted events that preceded it. The film does not spend enough time establishing the dangers of the old world, so the whole “curse” aspect feels forced and underdeveloped. Furthermore, it exposes how underwritten supporting characters like Laurel and ferocious warrior-turned-restauranteur Manticore (Octavia Spencer), who embark on their own quest of self-discovery when attempting to locate the siblings, are in the grand scheme of things. However, despite these awkward and uneven moments director Dan Scanlon still manages to weave in a surprising amount of genuine emotion in the final act.
A Satisfying Quest
One walks away from Onward unexpectedly reflecting on the cruel nature of death and those who help us move pass it. The film, in a round about way, is not so much about finding closure with those we have lost, but rather awakening one’s self to the living. Life is unpredictable and shorter than we think, so one must live it to the fullest.
Is Onward among Pixar’s best work? No. This does not make the film any less enjoyable though. Much like life itself, Onward is filled with its share of up and downs, but it is ultimately a satisfying quest worth taking.