Onward isn’t Pixar’s best effort (it’s difficult to compete with the likes of WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3), but it’s definitely the company’s most imaginative work to date. Speculating on what a stereotypical, Tolkien-inspired Medieval fantasy setting might look like in the “modern day” is hardly a new phenomenon, but director Dan Scanlon and his team of animators do a magnificent job of combining various magical and mundane elements into a world that feels simultaneously innovative and instantly recognizable. Jumbo jets soar over sprawling, verdant landscapes torn straight from the pages of The Lord of the Rings; the foreboding exteriors of remote inns and taverns, where wizards and adventurers once gathered to plan their epic quests, now contain colorful, family-friendly diners (complete with crayons and kids’ menus); and such formerly majestic creatures as unicorns have been reduced to scavenging through trashcans as suburbia slowly swallows up their natural habitat. Even the most seemingly minor visual touches (like dust particles dancing in the morning light after a character pulls on an old sweater, for example) create a palpable sense of authenticity and believability.
Where the film really excels, though, is in its conservation of detail. Nothing is wasted; everything is important. Every single spell that our timid, hapless protagonist struggles to master over the course of his journey returns with a vengeance during the climactic final battle. When the battered van that serves as our heroes’ “noble steed” loses its rear bumper, it initially appears to be a throwaway joke… until the well-meaning police centaur pursuing them happens to spot it, allowing him to continue following their trail. An ancient fountain, a bag of Cheez Doodles, a mural of a dragon mascot—if it is introduced, it will come back later, often in an unexpected fashion.
Of course, Onward can’t be completely boiled down to an intellectual exercise; it is, after all, a Disney movie, so it mercilessly aims for the heart in order to get the tears flowing. The plot—which revolves around a pair of brothers attempting to temporarily resurrect their deceased father—occasionally comes dangerously close to becoming transparently manipulative. Fortunately, once it settles into its narrative rhythm, it evolves into a genuinely moving meditation on grief, arguing that if we focus only on what we’ve lost, we may just overlook what’s been right in front of us all along. Again, not the most original theme, but Pixar has enough charm and charisma to make this familiar story feel absolutely groundbreaking. In every way that matters, the stalwart studio rolls yet another critical hit.