People have been trying (and failing) to adapt Dungeons & Dragons into TV or film since the 1980s. First we had that cartoon series: an unrealistically diverse group of teenagers being excited about Dungeons & Dungeons. Then we had the live action mess with Jeremy Irons and, inexplicably, Marlon Wayans. That then spawned a few terrible sequels starring Bruce Payne, a man that you’ve no doubt never heard of but still has the most robust Wikipedia page you have ever seen.
The best attempts at adapting so far come courtesy of Mr D&D himself, Vin Diesel, with Chronicles of Riddick (2004): D&D in space, and The Last Witch Hunter (2015), an adaptation of Vin Diesel's personal D&D character.
Pictured: The best Dungeons & Dragons movie, don't @ me
And now comes Pixar, throwing their dice into the game with Onward (2020), a movie about a world in which Dungeons & Dragons is their literal history and magic has dried up to make way for technology. Do they roll a nat20 or a critical fail?
Pixar never pulls their punches. I mean, Cars (2006) aside, Pixar never pulls their punches. Cars 2 (2011) aside, Pixar never---
Pixar rarely pull their punches, and Onward (2020) is no exception. A nerd and a different type of nerd have to team up with the legs of their dead dad to bring their dad back from the dead, but they’ve only got twenty four hours to rediscover magic and sort out their family issues.
Okay, when I say it like that, it sounds stupid, but for a film that inexplicably steals a sequence from Weekend at Bernie's II (1993), it works hard at providing a strong and engaging narrative. It is a basic fantasy, (gotta go to the place to get the thing), but it brings a lot of heart with an incredibly tight structure. Every setup has an impactful payoff, and some setups are so subtle that their eventual payoff feels just that much more rewarding. And on the side, there’s a really fun B-plot about their mum teaming up with The Manticore that comes with its own emotional baggage and payoff.
Pictured: Weekend at Bernie's (1989)
On the other hand, there are a few hand wavey moments of plot contrivances that don’t make sense in the context of the film. For example, characters showing up exactly when they’re needed, even if there has been no indication that they were heading that way in the first place, and even if they were, it wouldn’t have taken them that long. The only reason I found this distracting was because of how tight everything else was.
Pixar always goes the full nine---
Pixar almost always goes the full nine yards when it comes to their theming. When you’ve got a story about a dead father figure and two brothers trying to have just one more minute with him, you know that’s gonna resonate hard.
What’s most impressive about the film though is how it deals with those themes and how it finally resolves them in the end. As much as I loved Detective Pikachu (2019), I can see how it handled the same themes with a far more clumsy hand. Onward (2020) is so tactful and graceful, it’s worth it just for that alone. Just like Community (2009-2015) before them, it proves yet again that heavy subject matter can be explored with a good game of Dungeons & Dragons.
Come on. It’s Pixar. What were you expecting?
Pictured: Weekend at Bernie's II (1993) has never looked better
But in all seriousness, there’s nothing to say about the technical execution. What I CAN talk about on the other hand is the bizarre casting. I mean, sure: Chris Pratt as a layabout screw up who listens to rock and roll doesn’t seem too far-fetched… except Jack Black exists. Why the hell isn’t Barley played by Jack Black? The character is already Jack Black, he moves like Jack Black, he just sounds like Star-Lord, which is fine… but bland. Chris Pratt has charisma out the wazoo, no doubt, but his voice doesn’t carry that as much as he himself does. There’s a reason he was cast as the most standard generic Lego piece in The Lego Movie (2014).
Tom Holland is equally totally fine as Ian, the socially awkward high schooler who realises he has great power that should probably come with great responsibility, but this is animation. Animate, God damn it! I can forgive this casting so much more than I can the lack of Jack Black, but there are so many nerdy-weedy actors who sound nerdy and/or weedy. Jay Baruchel and Michael Cera exist. Elijah Wood exists. Christopher Mintz-Plasse exists. Hell, Jon Cryer still exists! Not everything has to be Marvel, you guys. There are other actors out there, you know?
Pictured: Not Jack Black and not Michael Cera
Oh also, just a side note: real freaking weird that they cast Chris Pratt when his character has the exact same back story as he did in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).
I love Dungeons & Dragons and frankly, Bright (2017) was disappointing. Sure, Onward (2020) dumped an almanac of exposition at the start to set up the world, but it worked. Bright (2017) tried hard to subtly expand the world throughout the story, which would've worked if it hadn't failed hard at having a world that makes sense when fleshed out.
There’s a lot of great jokes and puns hidden in plain sight all through the film, and even some really bad ones. They go to a place called Burger Shire… but are they playing off of Burger King? Burger King already sounds pretty fantasy-like. Also, why not White Castle? Burger Shire just sounds stupid. What’s the joke? Is it not a joke? Why did you bring so much attention to it? What’s your game, movie!?
Pictured: Oh, second breakfast. I get it. Shire. Burger Shire. Yup.
There’s a lot of great comedy, but it never seems to clash with the intense emotional beats. The set pieces are infinitely creative and massively entertaining; animating a fantasy world just makes these fantasy elements pop in a way I don’t think a live action movie could.