When’s the last time you’ve seen a film that pays proper respect to Gary Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons and LARPing? I’m waiting.
While Pixar’s latest 3D animation offering Onward doesn’t outright focus on D&D, but it does pay homage to its numerous established fantasy tropes from tabletop fantasy games to collectable card games based on its universe’s actual history.
All the while, it spins its narrative about two elf brothers who go on a road trip to find a gem that helps resurrect their dad for one day. The catch? The world they live in is warped by technology and modern conveniences; all semblance of magic and old-school “questing” is gone. Blue elves with cellphones, centaurs teaching aerobics and being cops; it’s that sort of drill if you’ve made a D&D campaign set in modern times.
Coupled with the fact that the younger brother Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) has magic potential while the older one, Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt), longs for the days of yore where sword and sorcery ruled supreme, and you have a heckuva journey filled with wonder and self-discovery. Oh, and the lovely Octavia Spencer voicing a former quest-giving manticore running her own tavern to get tied into the plot in the best of ways.
This would be all the more groundbreaking if the story structure and pacing is unique to the studio. The thing is, Pixar has been doing this from the first Toy Story up until, well, Toy Story 4. The stage and faces change, but the skeleton remains the same. Here, the stage is fantasy tropes, elves, manticores, trolls, and fairies modernized and mirroring contemporary backdrops.
But really, why fix what isn’t broken? Despite the show lacking some semblance of originality, it’s told in a compelling albeit slow-building fashion and in the most visually-arresting way possible. Pixar are clearly masters of the CGI craft, and their blend of detailed fantasy tropes, and real world-like landscapes filled with suburban houses, dark abandoned houses close to gas stations, and highways.
While it may be distracting to some, I’m perfectly on board with the company trying out risky animation cocktails. In this case, it paid off in full with lush vistas and immersion aplenty.
It’s a testament to the studio’s expertise with CGI, so it’s really down to personal taste.
The overall adventure between two protagonists coming to terms with lost and what letting things go seems familiar, especially since there are so many Pixar films that have similar family-related tropes. Regardless, the show’s great ending and heartfelt message justifies its existence and sets it apart from other road trip movies.
I had a blast with this familiar-yet-fun romp; it’s probably because of seeing familiar fantasy beasts from my dungeon-mastering days back in the 90s popping to semi-life Pixar-style. It’s earnest, it has chemistry and heart, and it looks damn good just doing it.
Onward may not be an instant classic, but it still deserves its place on the “best animated show of the year” shelf until something more innovative and groundbreaking comes along at the tail end of 2020. For now, pack up for this smooth ride.
FINAL SCORE: 70/100