Back to life: Pixar's 'Onward' explores the magic of love and loss with heartwarming results

In a world of unicorns, elves and manticores, Pixar's latest original animation follows two brothers on a fantasy quest

OH BROTHERS – In Disney and Pixar’s “Onward,” two teenage elf brothers embark on an extraordinary quest in a van named Guinevere to discover if there is still a little magic left in the world. Featuring Tom Holland as the voice of Ian Lightfoot, and Chris Pratt as the voice of Ian’s older brother, Barley, “Onward” opens in U.S. theaters on March 6, 2020. ©2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
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Pixar is about to release the eagerly anticipated Onward, its first original feature film in more than two years and a story centred on two teenage elf brothers on an adventure to find some magic.

While the animated story is set in a fantasy version of Los Angeles, where everyone lives in mushroom houses and unicorns roam around eating from bins, the plot of the film is relatable to anyone who has lost a loved one. Brothers Barley (Chris Pratt) and Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) have never really known their father, who died before Ian was born and when Barley was too young to remember. When the opportunity comes to bring him back for 24 hours, the pair seize the chance.

The film, which has already proved a success with critics, was inspired by the experience of director Dan Scanlon, whose father died when he was only a year old. Scanlon, alongside the film's producer Kori Rae, were behind Pixar smash hit, Monsters University (2013).

"Any time we can tell a personal story and have that be the grounding of the film, then that's really helpful," Rae told The National in London after a screening of the film. "At Pixar, we're not afraid of going to interesting places in storytelling. A lot of our films touch on really serious topics. I think that's wonderful."

The character of Ian is loosely based on Scanlon, who grew up with only pictures and one short voice recording to remember his father by. “We wanted to tell Dan’s story the best we could,” Rae explained. “We wanted to draw out what we could use from his life but not exploit it. He really enjoyed being able to share it.”

Ian and Barley are given a wizard’s staff with a spell that will bring their father back for one day. Ian tries the spell, but only ends up bringing back his legs, prompting the brothers to go on a quest to bring the rest of their father back before the day is up.

“The magic was there at first as a vehicle to try and bring dad back,” Rae said. “We landed on bringing back just his legs for humour and because it was crucial that Ian not succeed at first. It’s a story about his growth. Then that founded into the world because magic is found in fantasy.”

In a land where magic was once common but has since been forgotten and replaced with technology, Ian and Barley set about trying to revive the ways of the past. They come into contact with a manticore, a creature from legend with the head of a human, the body of a lion and a venomous tail (Octavia Spencer). The manticore is now a flustered restaurant owner, who has forgotten her magic powers. The brothers try to convince her to help them. "She [Spencer] was a joy to work with because she works so hard. The character is so over the top and she was sweating getting into character."

Other names in the film include Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays Ian and Barley's mother, and comedian Ali Wong as a faun police officer.

Onward follows 2019's huge box-office hit for Pixar, Toy Story 4. The studio confirmed it would focus solely on original features rather than sequels for the next few years.

But Rae did not rule out creating a sequel if filmgoers enjoy Onward as much as critics.

"We'll see," she said when asked by The National about the prospect of a follow-up. No plans as of yet."

Onward is showing in cinemas across the UAE from Thursday, March 5