Once there was magic in the world. No matter which world you’re talking about, its folk – fae or not – decided that technology was easier, and so magic went away. It brings to mind an Alan Moore quote – will we live in an age of miracles only to have lost our sense of wonder?
And so the people of New Mushroomtown put up with feral winged unicorns that are little better than angry raccoons, and even the centaurs no longer run free; instead they drive SUVs. If there’s any understanding of magic, it’s been locked away in the arcane lore of roleplaying games.
The world in Onward does seem a little upside down. In the Lightfoot family, older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) drives a van with an airbrushed pegasus on the side, but he’s the roleplayer, determined to preserve the past of his people. Younger brother Ian (Tom Holland) just wants to endure his 16th birthday and maybe avoid their mother’s boyfriend Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez). But mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) has a surprise gift for Ian from their late father, kept wrapped in the attic for 16 years.
For this is the point where Pixar allows for darkness. When science stepped in for magic, apparently so did mortal illnesses, and Ian never met his father. Barley only has three memories of him. If Ian can find enough inner strength, he and Barley may have the chance to bring their father back, but only for one day. Of course you realize, this means quest.
Writer/director Dan Scanlon and his Pixar crew have decently built out this world. They’ve clearly done their homework, dropping references to the fantasy canon and creating an atmosphere that needs to show up at some Disney theme park. For the most part, it follows its rules, and the idea that this world’s version of Dungeons & Dragons (not called that, though a deal was clearly struck) is actually based on historical fact makes for a great launch. (Ready to buy the actual game.)
It would be easy to get lost in those details, but Pixar movies run on heart. When Scanlon focuses on the small details of the family dynamic, that’s where the quiet magic happens, and a few scenes in this tale of loss and discovery tug gently at the heartstrings. Those are the most effective.
There are broader strokes, too, which feel a little by the numbers. A quest is still a quest, after all, and the script telegraphs more than it should. But then there’s the pixie biker gang, and Octavia Spencer’s Manticore, surprising enough creations to inject energy when things flag. (And again, please open a Manticore’s Tavern in one of the parks.)
Onward doesn’t end its quest exactly where promised, and that’s a good thing. But for as much magic as it promises, it does feel a little rote. In the end, the journey is not what was expected, but it is still a decent adventure.