Elf brothers Ian and Barley, living in a world that has forgotten its magical past, go on a quest to find a rare magical gemstone that will allow them to complete a spell to return their dead father to them for 24 hours.
Fantastic in both the current and the original sense, Onward is thrilling, funny and heart-wrenchingly moving – run, don’t walk, to see this one.
It’s also surprising; ostensibly about loss and rootlessness as a teen searches for a way to see his father, the answers it finally provides turn out to be much closer to home.
The pre-title sequence shows what accidentally went wrong in this society that is so like ours: progress means the end of the old ways with wizardry’s hard-to-master lighting spells superseded by gas fires and lightbulbs.
It’s meant to make life easier, but ends in a place that has forgotten its own roots. While that magical past isn’t hidden – ancient ruins dot the landscape until someone wants to build on them, small dragons are kept as pets – no one is particularly interested in the old ways.
Now only enthusiasts like Barley (Chris Pratt) keep the knowledge of that magic alive, oral traditions replaced by fantasy game cards.
His younger brother Ian (Tom Holland) is turning 16. Shy and nerdy, he’s not unpopular but is certainly unconfident. “One is afraid of everything and the other isn’t afraid of anything” says his mother Laurel about her two boys.
Their dad died before Ian was born (in family photos he looks disconcertingly like an elven John Krasinski), but on Ian’s 16th birthday Laurel presents her two sons with a gift he left for them: a magic staff and a special amber stone called a phoenix gem.
Barley (it’s his encyclopaedic knowledge of myth and magic that keeps them going throughout the movie) realises the instructions are a spell that will bring back their father for 24 hours.
Barley tries to perform the incantation but nothing happens. Then Ian has a go, but he can’t control the power and succeeds only in bringing back his dad’s lower body before the gemstone shatters.
Left with a particularly energetic yet directionless pair of legs and feet, the brothers set off on a quest to find one of the few other remaining phoenix gems, to reconstitute their dad fully for a least a few minutes: to say hello, and then goodbye.
It’s a batshit premise that entirely works. Luckily thanks to Barley’s memories and other people’s reminiscences they know quite a bit about their dad’s feet, so they still have something to bond with as they start their journey in Barley’s van Guinevere. (They do fashion a top half to avoid drawing attention to themselves, though to be honest it/he looks creepier than just the legs.)
In pursuit are Laurel, rediscovering her mama bear side, and Corey (Octavia Spencer), a winged manticore who is only now rediscovering her fiery place in the pantheon of magical creatures, after decades spent placating customers in her family restaurant.
Without giving too much away, as well as offering an American take on the world’s most famous child wizard, the boys’ quest has shades of Indiana Jones as they track down the missing gem; and last year’s underseen King Arthur family flick The Kid Who Would Be King in its exploration of abandonment and magic in a young boy whose dad has left.
The world-building is fabulous, from bad-tempered, feral unicorns snaffling in dustbins to tiny angry winged sprites, now the Hell’s Angels of the elven world.
Their adventures are exhilarating and sometimes knife-edge: a bottomless pit provides some of the most edge-of-seat moments I’ve witnessed on screen in a while.
But while Ian is lovely – a sweet kid doing his best – the real heart of the story is Barley, even though he initially comes across as a good-natured buffoon, the bumptious comic relief.
Barley’s delight that his little brother turns out to have magical gifts even though he has none – imagine an American suburban Harry Potter with a Muggle-y Ted “Theodore” Logan for an older sibling – feels genuinely heartfelt. He’s the ultimate support, always on hand with a spell and detailed instructions on how to maximise its chances of success.
While Barley had their dad in his life for a couple of years, he hasn’t had an older brother to help him since. (And now I’m not going to think about Barley’s childhood any more because I’ll start crying again, and England is already under a couple of feet of flood water.)
Outside of suburbia – like ours, only with mushroom-roofed houses – and the tower blocks of the business centre, the country has the colours of the fantasy novel: rich yet slightly mournful, with shades of a lost past.
Onward does include Disney’s first animated openly LGBTQ character, voiced by Lena Waithe: Cyclops police officer Spector, a lesbian, mentions her relationship with her girlfriend’s daughter after pulling over Ian and Barley in their van. It’s good that it’s there, though it is very brief and feels shoehorned in.
And really how hard is it? Last year’s A Dog’s Way Home, that most traditional of pooch-in-peril stories with a lost pitbull crossing the Colorado mountains to find its owner, managed to include a gay married couple whose sexuality didn’t even need to be mentioned; not because it had to be hidden but because it was clearly deemed obvious yet unremarkable.
That’s really my only criticism of Onward. In all other respects it’s an enchanting adventure story that blends humour with action on the surface and is also pleasingly thoughtful underneath; and the two voice leads bounce off each other with energy and élan.
Highlighting Ian’s own modern coming-of-age through the traditional elements of the most successful quests – bravery and sacrifice – Onward ends up exactly where it started. Was it worth the journey? Absolutely, for them and for us.
Note: There’s a Simpsons short film showing before the feature in cinemas.
If you want to know how Onward ends (is Dad ever more than just trousers?) scroll down…
Watch the Onward trailer now:
Film clip: Trust bridge
Yes they bring back Dad, and Ian lets Barley have the final moments with their father. The Phoenix Gem is in the fountain near the school, but the discovery of it leads to the school turning into a huge dragon. Ian fights it off and uses his spell to bring back their father fully. It’s only for a few moments but it’s long enough for Barley to say goodbye and share a hug with him.