The perfect Dungeons & Dragons movie exists.
There was once a grand magical world… that sort of settled for technology because, hey, it’s easier, right? Turning sixteen years old, Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) yearns to be popular in high school… or at a minimum noticed. Enduring life in the shadow of his boisterous and rebellious older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) with a passion for all things “olde and magical,” the brothers are gifted a present from their late father… a parent Ian has no direct memory of. When the material components fail leaving the rite only half finished, the elf brothers have twenty-four hours to complete the spell or lose the only chance they’ll ever have to see dad one last time, which can mean only one thing: goin’ on a quest!
Once upon a time, before a golden age of computer gaming and collectible card games, there existed the original cooperative tabletop choice of fantasy adventurers everywhere: Dungeons & Dragons, aka D&D. Born of the same post-1960s new-age imagery that spawned dark-world Boris Vallejo rock album covers and vans with wizards and unicorns on the side, it isn’t undesirable to imagine a place where all that might once have been true. In the same way D&D has enjoyed a resurgence and leapt into mainstream pop culture, it was only a matter of time before a studio equally leapt at the chance to blur the lines between polyhedral dice and self-aware fantasy characters. Disney and Pixar dares to ask: what if all of it — the monsters, the quests, and the magic — was once true and still existed, waiting to be rediscovered?
Onward oozes detail of a fantasy world of fairies and elves that evolved into a non-magical modern setting with all the trappings; think “The Flintstones,” “The Jetsons,” or even “The Roman Holidays.” From restaurant signs to denim jacket band logos, everything has a spin to it, all within the framework of a Pixar story that’s at least as good as what viewers expect. With so much imagination thrown up onto the screen, it invites repeat viewings just to catch all the references — clever, huh? What surprises is that, for all the gags and gimmicks, the film isn’t only solidly scripted but also heartfelt and honest, trusting the audience with a sophisticated story and an emotional punch imbued with maximum fun while exploring their concept.
Some of what takes place feels a little convenient, specifically that two teens could inspire an entire culture that lazily forgot their inherent capabilities. A centaur who prefers to drive instead of trot? Winged fairies who ride motorcycles instead of fly? It’s a harsh statement but one that feels true nonetheless, doing things the easier and/or accepted ways instead of exploring one’s natural capabilities. The time frame also seems a bit compressed, as if this technological revolution sprang into being in less than a lifetime. And if a roleplaying game with a CCG component is entirely based upon actual real-world locations, artifacts, and spellcraft, who is publishing these monster manuals and wizard tomes… and what do they know? These aren’t nitpicks; these are genuinely unexplored elements suggesting a much larger world still left to consider following the end credits, seeds sown for a future franchise if the film hits.
The buddy-flick banter between Holland and Pratt (aka MCU Spider-Man and Star Lord) is even better than one might hope. The boys’ mother Laurel is perfectly voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer steals her scenes as The Manticore, and pawn shop owner Grecklin gets the Tracey Ullman treatment. Well past the original ideas that launched the animation studio distributed and finally acquired by Disney, Pixar dares to ask if there’s still some magic left in the world, and Onward responds with a resounding yes.
Onward is rated PG for action/peril, some mild thematic elements, and always being on the lookout for a lurking gelatinous cube… role for initiative!
Four skull recommendation out of four
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