“Long ago”, the opening of monologue in Disney Pixar’s latest, Onward, begins, “the world was full of wonder.” Magic ruled the world, the voice explains, and creatures of all shapes and sizes populated it, expressing courage and generosity in every form, despite their (many) physical differences. Seemingly every new day brought another tale of inspiration and wonder, and a chance for every generation to live these wonderful stories together.
Dan Scanlon, the longtime Disney animator and director whose early-career credits include Pocahontas 2, The Little Mermaid 2, The Hunchback of Notre Dame 2 and 101 Dalmatians 2, clearly knows a thing or two about the lengths we can go to recreate that magic – and the depths into which it can lead us. Onward is his sophomore film as a director; Scanlon had previously written and directed Monsters University. The notion of a sacred, long-gone heritage nowadays understood only in the form of decrepit artefacts and Chuck-E-Cheese-type family restaurants is really the setting of Onward, which points a finger at studios’ reheat-friendly moviemaking in the form of an excellent, original idea. If only there were more of those.
The other, more personal source of inspiration for Scanlon, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, is the story of his own father, who passed away when the director was a one-year-old, and his elder brother three. For Ian and Barley Lightfoot (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, respectively), the same loss is a constant fixture in their lives and relationships, particularly with their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). But when a mystical opportunity to reach out to their father presents itself on Ian’s sixteenth birthday, the real quest for their role model begins – and takes the pair on a journey they didn’t know they needed.
The emotional weight of Onward – which in story terms is near Pixar’s best – is aided invaluably by top-notch performances by those three actors. From a deeply effective Louis-Dreyfus, whose stellar voice role in A Bug’s Life can be easily forgotten amid an otherwise patchy film career, her skill is by now of little surprise. Holland and Pratt, however, move unexpectedly well beyond secondary parts in the latter Marvel movies to deliver impressive, frequently hysterical and always compelling performances as the Lightfoot brothers, mismatched and loveable in equal measure. Honourable mentions should also go the way of Octavia Spencer (as the manticore restaurateur Corey) and Mel Rodriguez (your friendly neighbourhood centaur Colt Bronco).
Not that comedy – although by no means rare – is the crux of Onward. In true Pixar fashion, there’s ample opportunity for tears flowing in every direction, and it’s the Lightfoots’ internal family drama that sticks after the credits roll. In an action-heavy adventure movie where set-pieces are affected with as much tension and excitement as in the studio’s finest works, delivering moments of genuine intimacy and heart is no mean feat. As in the underrated Monsters University, Scanlon seems to do so with ease, and to great effect. The director was involved with Pixar’s 2015 blinder Inside Out as a behind-the-scenes creative director, and that experience seemingly feeds a emphasis on emotional maturity in Onward. Much like last year’s Shazam brought a welcome dose of grounded tenderness and feeling to a frequently annoying DC Universe of late (frankly, “annoying” is simply the truth), Scanlon’s latest is an affectionate and warm-hearted spectacle that harks back to the magic and wonder of Pixar’s finest achievements.
With a busy year ahead and four more titles pencilled in for 2021-2023, the studio should remember what makes its best films tick. Onward is a good place to start.