The world has lost its magic. Inventions such as the lightbulb have removed the need for elves to do the hard work of casting light spells. Likewise, the invention of planes means that winged creatures can just use Skyscanner instead of their own wings. A place once full of wonder and awe has just become the real world. Unicorns still exist, of course, only no one cares.
Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is an elven kid in need of magical inspiration. He is very nervous around his schoolmates, unable to even ask them round for cake on his birthday. His brother Barley (Chris Pratt) is the complete opposite. Obsessed with the world of magic, he fearlessly protects ancient buildings against modern redevelopers, much to the consternation of his mum (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and stepdad (Mel Rodriguez), a centaur who is also a cop. But when Ian gets a special staff from his long-gone father, the two brothers set off an epic adventure of discovery filled with magic, wonder and, yes, a boatload of emotion.
Onward is a moving ode to brotherhood that is sure to hit audiences right in the jugular. Is it manipulative? Of course. It is Pixar after all, yet the manipulation serves the emotion of the story rather than its mere plot machinations. You may need to bring some tissues though. OK, bring the whole box just to be sure.
Judging from the trailers there was a fear that the story may go a little too far in the DreamWorks direction — especially the now-redundant How To Train Your Dragon franchise. These fears are quickly allayed however by the quirky mixture of old-times magic and the modern world created here. But the greatest marvel is in the screenplay, which pays off almost every beat with expert precision. Minuscule details as small as a splinter become fully-fledged plot points in the end, making Onward one of the most narratively satisfying movies you will see all year.
Tom Holland lends every ounce of feeling to his vocal performance, portraying the vulnerability of youth far better than his outings as Peter Parker. The supporting voice cast is also uniformly excellent — especially Octavia Spencer as a half-beast half-scorpion known as the Manticore — turning what could’ve been one-note individuals into fully-fledged human beings. Like in the movies of Studio Ghibli, there are no real villains. Instead, all struggles are internal, making for a truly moving work of art about finding the magic inside of you and learning to understand what’s really important in life.
While the world created by Onward — part the cute trolls in Frozen, part How To Train Your Dragon —isn’t the most unique Pixar have created (it pales in comparison to the dystopia of Wall-E or Brad Bird’s Paris in Ratatouille), the emotional core of the story is as solid as the best of them. Fans will not be dismayed, and neither will more casual audiences. This is a fantastic movie.