Onward (2020), the latest original offering from Disney Pixar Studios, is a charming tale of brotherly love set into a classic roadtrip film and is laden with dungeons and dragons references (in the best possible way). It’s got adventure, magic, humor, and is an all-around fun and heart-warming film.
Onward is, first and foremost, the story of modern elf brothers, Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt). They have been raised by their mother Laurel Lightfoot (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and we learn pretty quickly that their father, Wilden Lightfoot (Kyle Bornheimer), died before Ian was born, sixteen years ago. Both boys struggle to find their footing in the world and have coped with the loss of a parent in very different but realistic ways. Ian’s sixteenth birthday gift changes everything, as they are given an opportunity that so many of us long for who have lost a loved one: the chance for one more day together.
The beauty of this film is in the details of a world that is so familiar to our own and yet so different. The citizens of New Mushroomtown have lost their sense of wonder and connection to magic in favor of electricity (and smartphones), despite the fact that they are, themselves, actual wondrous creatures. The pixies have forgotten they can fly, the centaurs have forgotten they can run, and warrior spirit has been converted into cardio workouts. Even the quest-giving Manticore (Octavia Spencer) has converted her tavern to a theme restaurant for kids’ parties. If this world parallels our own, the implications are pretty clear.
While Ian and Barley are off on their dad-conjuring quest, their mother Laurel doesn’t allow herself to be left behind. Of all of the characters in this film, she may have been my favorite. She isn’t going to let her sons face monsters alone, and isn’t afraid to unleash her inner warrior when the time comes. She’s smart and capable and so, so real. Yes, Lauren IS a mighty warrior!
As a dungeons and dragons fan, I also loved all of the gaming references in the movie, and the fact that this world is the one the very similar game Barley Lightfoot plays is based on. Keep an eye on all of the little nods throughout (though it may take a second viewing to find them!). Beyond that, it’s just fun to spot all of the product names and fun references that have sprung up in this modern fantasy world: Swamp Gas for the vehicles? Trolls at the bridge toll booths? So good!
Though this story, on its surface, is about the Lightfoot brothers’ quest to spend one more day with their dad, in reality it is a quest for adulthood and self-discovery (as all the best roadtrip movies are). It urges us to look for the magic inside of us, and not to focus on what we’re missing but on what we already have. There is adventure to be had, if you are willing to put your van in O for Onward!
There is no credits scene, but there is a special thanks to Wizards of the Coast for the use of so much dungeons and dragons material.
If taking kids, there are a handful of exciting, potentially scary scenes, but nothing too intense.