“Onward,” the newest animated adventure from Disney/Pixar, finally brings mainstream representation to a group previously relegated to the margins of popular culture: the fantasy-obsessed metalhead.
In this warm tale of brotherly love forged during an epic coming-of-age quest, Chris Pratt voices older bro Barley, a burly chap (or elf, rather) in a battle vest with an affinity for all things Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, or rather, the generically branded versions. In his trusty steed Guinevere, an old purple van airbrushed with a mighty Pegasus (which Pixar may or may not have stolen from a local Bay Area artist, pending an intellectual property lawsuit), Barley blasts sweet heavy metal tunes about wizards and beasts and magic. Barley is a blast.
This isn’t Barley’s story, though he’s an integral part. This is the story of his younger brother, Ian (Tom Holland), a shy young elf who discovers that he does, indeed, have a little magic in him.
In this world of fantasy creatures (elves, pixies, ogres, centaurs, et al.), magic has gone out of fashion, replaced with the convenience of electricity and appliances. These magical beings having settled into a comfortable suburban domesticity. Ian has all the issues of any awkward teenager: an overbearing brother, crippling social anxiety, his mom’s cop boyfriend. Worst of all, he badly longs for a connection to his father, who died before he was born.
On his 16th birthday, a dejected Ian receives a gift from his father: a wizard staff and spell bestowed to both brothers with the hopes that they can conjure up Dad for one more day. Ian discovers he does in fact have the magic touch, but the brothers bungle it, bringing him only halfway back. They manage to manifest his legs before the rare Phoenix gem explodes, and so in hopes of completing the spell before he disappears at the next sunset, the brothers hit the road in Guinevere for a good old-fashioned quest.
This premise makes “Onward” potentially the most morbid example of the Disney Dead Parents trope, which they’ve relied on for decades. Dead parents have been the easy shortcut right to emotional stakes for the young characters, creating that potent blend of tear-jerking and cutesy, culturally relevant humor.
But “Onward” literally embodies this ever-present longing for a lost loved one, as Ian and Barley drag their father’s sentient legs around with them on their search for the gem, with Ian hoping for one moment with the father he never knew and Barley looking for some closure.
The fantasy characters allow for this magical experimentation, and if you can get over the sheer emotional terrorism contained in those legs, “Onward” is a fun romp supported by creative and clever world-building. Pratt’s vocal performance and the character of Barley are a necessary element in keeping things buoyant enough to bounce through this story, and a necessary tonic to offset Ian’s neuroses, which can explode into bursts of self-sabotage or outward anger.
But like any good adventure story, it’s clear that it’s never about the destination, but the journey itself, and fortunately, Ian comes to see that everything he was looking for in his father was with him all along. Coming from the Pixar poignancy factory, it’s no surprise that “Onward” plucks all the right heartstrings to produce many laughs and many tears too.