Onward teaches children to cope with death in a creative and heartfelt way. The film treads into somber territory, but dazzles with its magical plot. The fantasy world of elves is initially transformed into our familiar, mundane modern times. The characters then experience an awakening that rediscovers their mystical abilities. They learn to treasure the memories and lessons left behind from the dearly departed. Onward is a journey filled with laughter and tears.
Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) hopes to have a normal sixteenth birthday. He's painfully shy and awkward. All he wants is to go to school, have the courage to meet new friends, and maybe invite them back home for a birthday party. His older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), has a different notion. He's obsessed with a historical role playing game. Elves have lost their inner magic. Spells and enchantments have been replaced by electrical gadgets. Barley yearns for an epic adventure with his beloved little brother.
Ian and Barley are given the magical staff of their deceased father. Before his passing, Wilden Lightfoot (Kyle Bornheimer), left instructions for a spell that would allow one more day with his children. Needless to say, everything does not go according to plan. Ian and Barley must race to fix the bungled spell before this last time with their father vanishes forever. They plunge headfirst into their quest without realizing its inherent dangers. Thankfully they have a tireless mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who has always loved and protected her very different sons.
Onward's premise is clever and ambitious. Why would an elf learn a fire spell when he can simply light a match or turn on a lightbulb? The idea that technology vanquished the need for magic is quite original. Director/co-screenwriter Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) gets a lot of mileage from this hilarious set-up. Laurel's boyfriend, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), is a centaur police officer. Why would he chase criminals when he has a sweet police cruiser? The funniest scenes are watching fantasy creatures bumble about like normal human life.
Onward takes a serious approach to addressing the complexity of loss. Ian, in a squeeze your tear ducts scene, listens and talks to a cassette of his father's voice. His father died when he was an infant. He never knew him. Ian's longing for guidance, a dad to help him face his greatest fears; fills him with sorrow and loneliness. This is heady stuff. But told in a way that even young children would understand. Onward does not dumb down the consequences of death. Even the idea of one more magical day is explained to be fleeting.
It is not a permanent salve for losing a relative, but a chance to say the things that were never said. Ian experiences significant growth by the film's climax. What he's going through, how he feels, is also felt by his mother and brother. Onward reminds us that the void can be filled with the love and strength of family.
Pixar never shies away from tackling diverse and complicated themes. Onward has its melancholic moments, but is humorous enough to never be a total drag. The subject matter may be too depressing for some. I can totally understand why a family would prefer more lighthearted entertainment. Having a death discussion with the kids may not be expected after a Sunday matinee. So be forewarned that Onward is not the best CGI film for casual viewing. Onward is a Pixar production with distribution by Walt Disney Pictures.