Dan Scanlon – who directed, and co-wrote with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin – has worked his way up within Pixar, competently handling the okayish sequel Monsters University and now getting his shot at something more substantial, and potentially the set-up for a franchise of its own. It says something about the increasing popular understanding of genre tropes that – like Zootropolis – this can sketch in an entire alternate world, with a complicated history, then get on with telling a story that resonates across dimensional boundaries and even engages with a persistent critique of American pop culture’s obsession with idealised absent Dads. I’ve always assumed that if more Dads showed up at their kids’ Little League games, there’d be fewer arrested adolescent male auteurs in the business and the movies would be free to tell other stories – that’s almost exactly the subtext of Onward, which sets out to be a boy-and-his-Dad tale (like, recently, Ad Astra) but turns out to be a brothers-on-a-road-trip experience (like the overrated Rain Man and the underrated Coup de Ville).
The opening narration establishes a typical fantasy world of wizards, elves, mages, adventurers and enchanted creatures … but shows a literal lightbulb moment where reliable tech replaces wonky spellcasting, leading to a soft, slack, unmagical suburban echt-America where feral unicorn pegasi snarl over scraps from garbage cans and the Manticore (Octavia Spencer, channeling Whoopi Goldberg) has converted her tavern, the first step on many a quest, into a tacky theme restaurant. Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland), a shy teenage elf who mopes about never having met his late father, is stuck with mixed-blessing gap year brother Barley (Chris Pratt), who is keen on D&D-style roleplaying games because, in this context, they represent a truer heritage of the world (let’s not get into the commodification of mostly European myth and literature by American hippie capitalism in the 1970s).
Dad, an accountant who also wanted to revive magic, has left behind a spell which means he can return for a single day to meet his grown sons … though it’s botched and only his lower half comes through, equipped with Dad-dancing shoes but nothing that might make for a reunion with Mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who is dating a centaur cop (Mel Rodriguez). So, the bros set out in Barley’s fantasy-illustration-painted van on a quest for mcguffins that will complete the spell, unaware of the curse that comes with it … while the film cooks up some emotional beats that hit home between splendid, spectacular action and comedy sequences. Though there are some cavils, notably the damp squib of the one-scene precedent-setting LGBT character (a lesbian cyclops cop, whose single line about her girlfriend can easily be redubbed as about a husband or pet in – say – the Chinese release), it’s mostly a delight.