Onward‘s trailers didn’t seem very funny or interesting to me. But it came out so quickly on Disney+, and enough people seemed to enjoy it, so my wife and I watched it over Saturday afternoon. I haven’t been so surprised by a film in a while; it was a cathartic, emotionally satisfying, delightful movie that I didn’t expect in the least.
In a very broad sense, Onward is to tabletop roleplaying as Wreck-It Ralph is to video games: an animated family film that takes a pop culture subgenre and builds a mythology around it. Both movies also become stories about sibling relationships (one a found family, one by blood), told over a quest narrative full of zany adventure. I feel that Onward is the more heartfelt film, perhaps because it is a more tailored tale that doesn’t fixate too much on winking references to its pop culture subject matter.
In the world of Onward, the fantasy setting of games like Dungeons & Dragons is the actual history of the realm. Magic was a powerful tool, a gift only present in some and difficult to master. Developing technology made things easier for everyone, however, and magic was gradually phased out. The film’s story picks up in something resembling our modern world, if it was built atop such a rich fantasy setting and populated by elves and cyclopes, goblins and trolls, manticores and minotaurs, pixies and centaurs, unicorns and dragons. The big tabletop RPG of this world, Quests of Yore, is if D&D were a historically accurate wargame.
The protagonists of this alternate-universe story are awkward high-schooler Ian (Tom Holland), his uninhibited (and Quests of Yore-obsessed) older brother Barley (Chris Pratt, in a role that can best be described as early aughts Jack Black), and their supportive mother Laurel (Julia Luis-Dreyfus). The family has done its best to adjust since father Wilden passed away even before Ian was born. However, on Ian’s sixteenth birthday, Laurel brings down a gift from Wilden that had been stowed away for the day when both of the boys had come of age. That gift, it turns out, is a wizard’s staff, an elemental enhancement known as a Phoenix Gem, and a spell that should allow Wilden to return for one day.
After Barley fails to get the spell to work, despite his encyclopedic knowledge of magic from Quests of Yore, the family dejectedly moves on. But Ian inadvertently discovers that he has the magic gift; since he’s untrained, the spell only works halfway, bringing back the bottom half of their dad and destroying the Phoenix Gem. Barley and Ian team up on a quest using Barley’s old van to track down a new Phoenix Gem and complete the spell so that they have at least a few hours to see their dad. Laurel soon gets involved when she returns home to find her sons missing, and her urgency increases when she learns that the gem they’re hunting carries a lethal curse. The movie deftly juggles between the boys and the pairing of Laurel with The Manticore (Octavia Spencer), a former warrior turned frazzled restaurant owner. Added to that mix, Laurel’s new centaur boyfriend, a bland, middle-aged cop named Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez) finds himself thrust into the middle of things.
The movie possesses a basic quest frame narrative, and so achieving or failing the quest is of course its central focus. The boys will either succeed or fail; since it’s a family movie, it should be no surprise that they succeed, although how exactly they succeed, and how the movie resolves its various plots, is far more surprising, heartfelt, and interesting than I ever would have expected. The brothers grow a lot and learn more about their own relationship. They both are tested in different ways to prove themselves. Ian becomes a really cool wizard (and learns how to drive!). Barley is a really cool mentor. Laurel is a true warrior at heart.
We had a lot of fun watching the movie, which is genuinely touching and hilarious in equal measures. I laughed a lot. And something about the movie’s emotional heart got me to cry several times throughout. It was a beautiful family movie and just what I needed. I hope you get something special out of it too.