Onward to another Pixar Movie

Jackson McMurray, Staff Contributor

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is back in a big way. 

This new resurgence with young adults might be a product of the affinity for the fantasy genre that comes from growing up with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, or a desensitization to increasingly lifelike video games, or maybe just a result of the same 30-year nostalgia cycle that made Stranger Things a hit. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to deny the 18-24 demographic is big into tabletop roleplay again. 

Only very recently has traditional media caught on, and suddenly it seems like everybody is fighting for the chance to capitalize on not just the licenced property of Gary Gygax’s “Dungeons and Dragons,” but the broader 1980s roleplay game (RPG) aesthetic. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldsmith are currently attached to direct a 2021 “Dungeons and Dragons” movie for Paramount. NBC recently ordered a pilot based on the popular D&D Podcast “The Adventure Zone,” and even “Marvel’s Thor: Love and Thunder” has a poster with a distinctly Gygaxian vibe. But seemingly first among this new wave of retro RPG content is Pixar’s newest film “Onward.” 

“Onward” takes place in a world in which the elves, gnomes and trolls of a traditional fantasy world grew up and invented smartphones, khakis and station wagons. The protagonists, played by Chris Pratt and Tom Holland, are two brothers whose father died when they were very young. In the first act, the brothers discover their dad left behind a spell that could resurrect him for 24 hours, only to botch the execution and resurrect only their father’s bottom half. 

The quest that ensues, as per RPG tradition, is a fairly episodic one, where the protagonists encounter various obstacles in sequence preventing them from reaching their goal: a magical gem that would allow them to meet their father’s top part. Each detour serves less as a cause-and-effect plot necessity and more as an opportunity to learn about and explore the lives of the heroes. Each episode of their journey, in true Pixar fashion, is a methodical stepping stone building towards the perfectly crafted catharsis at the end of the film. 

Pixar is perhaps the most prestigious name in modern feature animation, which means each new film they produce has enormous shoes to fill. No matter what happens their movies have to sit alongside genuine masterpieces like “The Incredibles” and “Toy Story” on that “Pixar” tab on Disney Plus.

Each year it becomes more and more impressive that their films don’t collapse under their own weight. Even under that tremendous pressure, Onward is a meticulously created story that puts characters and ideas first, building to a final act that is among the most gutsy and affecting in the Pixar catalogue, all anchored by a phenomenal voice cast.

It’s easy to write off Tom Holland and Chris Pratt as the handsome faces of thoughtless blockbuster cinema, but it has to be noted they got to be that way by first being incredibly talented actors. Both give absolutely stellar voice performances in this film. 

Pratt has a doofy charm and roguish energy that is always endearing and never grating, and Holland, who has lived in England his whole life, is continuing to demonstrate an insane mastery of American dialects. His Northwestern-sounding character in Onward sounds completely unlike his New York-infused performance as Spider-Man in subtle but effective ways.

If “Onward” is a good indicator of what the new era of D&D-inspired filmmaking is to be, we have plenty of reason to be excited. It lovingly borrows tropes and iconography from role playing games without being scared to modulate and adjust them to fit their vision of a clear, meaningful story. 

Whether it’s taking literal fantasy creatures and items and recontextualizing them into a modern world, or co-opting storytelling structures from role playing games and manipulating them to make them feel effective in a 90-minute feature film, “Onward” is committed to respecting its inspirations without being obsessed with leaving them untouched. 

“Onward” feels like an intelligently conceptualized and well-rendered kick-start to a new phase of pop culture, as well as an original film that lives up to its place among the giants in the Pixar catalogue.