Pixar’s latest feature-length film, Onward, doesn’t reach US theaters until March 6, and it’s rare for us at Ars Technica to review a film so far in advance of its launch. When we do, it’s usually for good reason.
In Onward‘s case, that’s because we haven’t seen a film so easy to recommend to Ars Technica readers in years. We know our average demographic: parents and older readers who are deeply fluent in decades of nerd culture and who appreciate films that offer genuine laughs, likable characters, and tightly sewn logic in family-friendly fashion without compromising the dialogue, plot, or heart—or beating an original, previously beloved franchise into the ground. Pixar has come out screaming with a film that feels focus-tested for that exact audience, and I’m already eager to attend the film again in two weeks.
“Historically based adventure simulator”
We’ve seen our fair share of fantasy genre satires and comedies, but Onward delivers the most fully fledged, top-to-bottom homage to the fantasy genre since Monty Python and the Holy Grail sent up all things King Arthur. To be clear, Pixar’s newest universe of characters draws more from the Dungeons & Dragons well of magical, class-based adventuring with its own twist.
The rest of this review contains minor plot spoilers to connect the dots about why I like Pixar’s twists on conventional fantasy wisdom. I have made an effort to otherwise leave certain plot points and jokes unspoiled, but if you’d like to go into the film completely blind, consider this a warning.
Onward presupposes that Earth’s history is rich with dragons, wizards, elves, fairies, unicorns, centaurs, and the like. Though Onward‘s world has magical powers, they’re a pain in the butt to cast. That led to innovation. Roughly 100 years ago, someone figured out how electricity worked. The industrial revolution followed, and a world full of fantasy creatures came to rely upon fossil fuels, cars, planes, smartphones, and so on.
The film’s resulting fusion of modern American life and fantasy-worthy history feels more grounded than the secret world of creatures lurking on the other side of Monsters, Inc. Dangerous adventuring lore becomes the foundation for a cheesy, kid-friendly restaurant. Centaurs are lazy cops who can’t be bothered to gallop. The hottest rhythm arcade game requires at least four legs and is called Prance Prance Revolution. The steed of choice for an aspiring adventurer isn’t a horse but rather an Econoline van with a sick unicorn painted on its sides. And jean jackets are covered in… honestly, the band names and references worn by older metalhead brother Barley (Chris Pratt) are close to what you’d find in real life.
Barley and his anxious younger brother Ian (Tom Holland) face off early in the film as dissimilar siblings. Barley’s a sloppy ne’er-do-well with a heart of gold; he drives like a maniac, racks up parking tickets, and has a bad reputation with the local police, but that’s because of well-meaning civil disobedience. (In this world, that means chaining himself to ancient, magical relics that developers want to bulldoze in favor of condos.) Ian, meanwhile, is an awkward pushover, and when he’s not struggling to fit in at school, he’s embarrassed by his wild, showy brother.
The brothers are compelled to join forces once Ian receives a 16th birthday gift from his father… who’s been dead since a few months before Ian was born. Because the gift revolves around the fading art of magic, it doesn’t go exactly as planned, and the brothers must race against time to solve their new problem. Turns out, Ian had secret magical abilities all along, and in order to understand and master them, he needs Barley’s help, which mostly comes from his encyclopedic knowledge of the tabletop game Quests of Yore. Even though the game looks just like D&D, complete with 20-sided die and elaborate miniatures, Barley points out its relevance in Onward‘s world: “It’s an historically based adventure simulator!”
Now serving second breakfast
The film starts strong with a wealth of rapid-fire visual gags—and I’m doing my darndest not to spoil them, I promise. Yet at first glance, the resulting brothers-on-an-adventure story might seem rote in comparison. Haven’t we seen this before?
One way the film differs on a character-building level from the usual fare, however, is in Barley’s atypical take on the older “bad boy” brother archetype. His heart of gold and thirst for adventure line up surprisingly neatly next to his disregard for rules and conventions, and these prove to be the perfect foil for Ian to break out of expected younger-brother clichés. As it turns out, each brother has a reason to be annoyed, impatient, or outright disappointed by the other, and the siblings take turns being a villain or opponent for each other, all while they unite (or fail to do so) in chasing a greater purpose.
Through their quest, the boys resolve certain problems in unsurprising fashion. A strained friendship is resolved by joining forces. Yawn, duh, film at 11. But even this resolution comes with its own surprises and sweetness, as the boys find organic opportunities to bond and talk through certain story beats between zanier scenes of action and comedy—and each gains a newfound respect for the other that is paid off handsomely by the film’s end. The pacing is masterful, and it’s helped by each actor applying a delicate touch to the awkwardness of being a teen—while also nailing some serious comedic timing. The touching results make similar fare, particularly Shrek and Donkey’s first-film journey, seem “kiddie” in comparison.
(I nearly typed out how some of this brotherly plot is resolved in Onward, but I instead deleted it and wiped tears from my eyes, remembering how absolutely touched I was by the surprising results. I would like for you to experience the resolution in the same way that I did.)
The boys are brought together in part by a running gag that, sadly, the film’s trailer has already spoiled; I’ve endeavored to leave that detail out of the above gallery. Instead, I’ll simply say that the cast of supporting characters works almost entirely in service to Ian and Barley’s journey, and this strikes a gentle balance between first-blush laughs (“ha, they made a classic fantasy archetype do a surprisingly funny thing in modern, American life”) and an eventual drop of funny dialogue and jokes those characters offer. The cast’s greatest casualty is the mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who doesn’t really get credit as a matriarch—though it’s easy to lose track of this while watching the film, considering how the boys’ scenes play out in thoughtful, entertaining fashion. In good news, Laurel at least gets her own hilarious scenes, particularly when she joins forces with a restaurant-managing manticore (Octavia Spencer) and confuses the heck out of her boyfriend Colt (Mel Rodriguez, Little Miss Sunshine).
Plus, Onward‘s focus on the brothers’ relationship means the film does something impressively subtle: it avoids tokenizing anybody in order to advance the protagonists’ story. Barley and Ian’s quest doesn’t hinge upon saving helpless damsels, and everybody who gets significant screen time—even a few potential villains—is humanized or made three-dimensional in ways that you probably won’t notice at first. I left this film really liking every significant character and wanting to see more of them—and as much as I like most Pixar films, their only feature-length production that left me feeling the same was the first Toy Story.
That’s how much I enjoyed Onward: more than Coco, possibly as much as Toy Story 2 and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, and easily more than the family-friendly likes of Pokemon: Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog. Any cartoon-loving, fantasy-steeped nerd should make plans to watch Onward by year’s end, whether you rush to theaters or block out time to stream it later.