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Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Onward

This is a version of a review airing on ABC Radio Ballarat and South West Victoria on March 5, 2021.

(PG) ★★★★★

Director: Dan Scanlon.

Cast: (voices of) Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mel Rodriguez, Octavia Spencer, Lena Waithe, Ali Wong, Grey Griffin, Kyle Bornheimer.

Gandalf was quite the pyromaniac in his younger days.

I am continually in awe of Pixar. When they go off pushing the boundaries of family films with things like the existential Soul or the emotional Inside Out or the mostly dialogue-free Wall-E, the results are beyond incredible. But even when they tell more conventional stories, such as the Toy Story films or Finding Nemo, they do it with such effortless ease that it's easy to overlook how perfect the results are.

Onward, a film that's release was cruelly hobbled by the early days of the COVID pandemic, is one of Pixar's more straight-ahead stories, especially when compared with 2020's other Pixar release Soul. There are no "why am I here?"-type crises or concepts as abstract as The Great Before. This is a good ol' fashioned fantasy adventure, with an important quest, magical trials, and lots to learn along the way because you don't go on a physical journey without making a personal one. 

And it's goddamn brilliant.

Set in a fantastical world where magic has been superseded by the conveniences of modern living, Onward follows brothers Ian (Holland) and Barley (Pratt) on a quest to reunite with their late father. A wayward magical spell has brought dear old dad partially back from the dead - he's basically a pair of legs - but the brothers will have to work together if they're going to find the MacGuffin that will make him whole before the remainder of the spell wears off. 


The twists on the familiar give this something special. The "fantasy world as an analogue for our own world" is rarely pulled off this well (Terry Pratchett's Discworld books are a rare example of doing it better), and from this flows the film's whimsical yet clever tone. It has a beautiful look, a wonderful sense of humour, a canny enthusiasm for its Dungeons & Dragons-inspired world, a sharp satirical bent in places, but it also has a grounded quality that comes from making its characters feel real and multi-dimensional. 

It's the depth in the characters and their relationships that elevates this to greatness. Onward uses its family dynamics to examine father figures, grief, coming of age, confidence, destiny, and so much more, all the while leading to a tearjerker finale that's right up there with Pixar's biggest "I've got something in my eye" moments, such as the first 12 minutes of Up or the furnace of Toy Story 3. And like Coco, it dares to examine death from a young perspective, while never talking down to its audience. It delivers its findings with tact and heart, leaving its characters believably changed. 

It's all part of that Pixar magic, that sprinkling of Pixar dust. The story is impeccably written. There's not a hair out of place on its elven head - every plot point or seemingly innocuous moment is paid off at exactly the right moment. From a mother's workout routine manifesting as super-maternality to light-hearted impressions of a step-dad, everything has its place in this truly magical story.

And like all the great Pixar films - and there are so many - Onward is as spellbinding as it is enriching. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and when it finishes, you'll want to watch it all over again. 

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