Onward review – Pixar delivers another imaginative tear-jerker

Tom Holland and Chris Pratt play two incongruous elf brothers on an outlandish quest to reunite with their deceased father

We’re just a few years away from Tom Holland morphing into his final form: Chris Pratt. The Marvel Cinematic Universe affiliates’ analogous auras might explain why they are so effective as mismatched elf brothers in Pixar’s latest animated yarn, Onward, a fantasy-adventure film set in a world of coexisting mythical creatures that hilariously parodies our own.

Ever willing to explore demanding themes, Onward – like Coco before it – questions our relationship with mortality as Ian Lightfoot (Holland) and older, brasher brother Barley (Pratt) are given the chance to reunite with their deceased father for just one day. But magic in the world of Onward has waned since the advent of modern technology, with the worldly legends of yore now relegated to be subjects of Barley’s Dungeons and Dragons-style board game. Consequently, the spell goes very wrong and only the bottom half of their dad materialises. A dizzying quest ensues as the brothers (with their dad’s conscious legs in tow) seek the Phoenix Stone needed to complete the incantation and make the most of the 24 hours they have with their father.

On its exciting journey to reconnect with the past, Onward showcases the power of coalescing the disparate. Just as Barley’s rhapsodic rock playlist intertwines with the wondrous score, the Lightfoots are compelled to grow from each other’s strengths. The quest’s vibrant string of set-pieces are threaded together as to accentuate the family drama. One sequence has the endearing pointy-eared pair using magic to imitate a cop (a centaur who also happens to be their mother’s boyfriend) in order to evade trouble. With the magic only lasting as long as its master speaks honestly, it doesn’t take long for the illusion to collapse when Ian is invited to speak his mind about his big brother’s maturity.

This evolving dynamic between the siblings is a personal inclusion for director Dan Scanlon, who lost his own father when he and his brother were very young. The cast embraces this responsibility. The role of an awkward adolescent too precious for the real world is comfortably within Holland’s repertoire. The same goes for Pratt, who returns to the dorky personality of Parks and Recreation‘s Andy Dwyer to voice Barley. Julia Louis-Dreyfus (far from the severity of her best TV roles) also joins the ensemble as the firebrand mother in pursuit of her missing boys. She is assisted by the once fearsome Manticore (Octavia Spencer, delightful as ever) who now owns a family-friendly diner. The campaign for this latter pair’s own story starts here.

As one of Hollywood’s most consistent studios, the pressures of expectation can prove burdensome. But Pixar brushes this off like pixie dust. Onward proves to be an exciting and involving race against time, determined to steal a few laughs and your heart. Only in its simplicity – of both plot and animated setting – does the film falter. Despite this, not once does the world of Onward fail to feel like a fully inhabited place. As we’ve come to expect from Pixar’s better efforts, kids will be spellbound and adults will be made to weep.

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