Embark on a quest with elf brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot in Onward, the latest original animated feature from Pixar Animation Studios. Part of the secret to the success of Disney Animation’s Frozen was the powerful story of sisterhood that resonated with moviegoers in 2013. Pixar seeks to capture a similar magic with a story of brotherhood in Onward, but does it have the right ingredients to tap into that same level of familial bonding magic?
Set in the magical realm of New Mushroomton, the story takes place in a world where wizards, elves, fairies, merfolk, and unicorns are all real. But technology and lifestyles have evolved similar to those in our world and the magical arts have been lost to time. Fairies are too lazy to use their wings, mermaids splash about all day in a kiddie pool sipping refreshing beverages, unicorns have become rabid trash diggers, and the stories of old have become somewhat of a joke passed down through a card game called “Quests of Yore,” a Dungeons and Dragons style role play that teenagers get mocked for playing, which includes Ian’s older brother Barley.
Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland, Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame) is a shy sixteen-year-old who has a hard time making friends and is the polar opposite of his brother Barley (Chris Pratt, Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame), who is a loud, boisterous young man with an obsession for “Quests of Yore” and an unreliable van named Guinevere with a majestic unicorn painted on the side. Barley tries to be close with Ian, who is embarrassed by his older brother and doesn’t share his magical interests. On his sixteenth birthday, the top questions on Ian’s mind are about the father he never knew and what he was like.
Ian and Barley’s mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, not in Avengers: Endgame) gives the boys a gift from their deceased father, who wished for them to open it together when they were both sixteen. It contains a magic staff, a rare magic gem, and a spell that can bring their father back for one day so he can see who his sons grew up to be. But when the gem cracks halfway through the spell, they end up with just the bottom half of their father and have to find the last remaining gem before the next sunset if they want to see their father face-to-face. Thus, with Barley’s immense knowledge of quests, magic, and the foibles that lay ahead, they set out aboard Barley’s steed Guinevere for the adventure of a lifetime.
Despite being set in a world that feels reminiscent of the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, the overall feel of Onward is more similar to Steven Spielberg’s 1980’s box office megahits. The brotherly bonding and even Barley’s appearance feels somewhat derived from The Goonies, which had a similar map-following race against time plot. Other parallels can be drawn to the brothers in E.T. and even the relationship of the boys to their single mother. But none of this feels like a rip-off, but more of a loving homage to an era that clearly inspired the creators.
There’s a lot of exposition to digest quickly at the start of Onward, but once it’s established, the film works its way towards a powerful and memorable ending that is as touching and impactful as the best Pixar animated features. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll want to see it again with your brothers. While the premise unites them on a journey to meet their deceased father, the “Endgame” gives Ian and Barley a new understanding and appreciation for each other that is incredibly healing for viewers who have a similar sibling dichotomy.
I give Onward 5 out of 5 manticore plush prizes.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.