Urban Fantasy, Road Trip, Buddy Comedy, Coming of Age and good old-fashioned dungeon crawl.
It can be argued that, along with Star Trek and Star Wars, the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (popularly known as “D&D”) has had a profound cultural impact that has extended beyond its immediate audience, and even beyond pop culture and has, in fact, become woven into the fabric of every day life. Just as even the most scifi-ignorant person would find “warp speed” or “Jedi mind trick” common turns of phrases, the same goes for “level-up”, “dungeon master”, “saving throw” and “hit points” among others to various degrees – so it was really only a matter of time before Disney put out what is essentially a Dungeons & Dragons movie.
Almost since Dungeons and Dragons was first published in the late 1970s, there has been a desire among its players for a true “Dungeons & Dragons movie.” In a bit of recursiveness, many put forth that the animated Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings movies were a good example. Of course, D&D’s creators, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were inspired and heavily influenced by Tolkien’s original novels. In fact, it got to the point that Tolkien’s estate had to issue a cease and desist against their company, TSR, prohibiting them from using the term “Hobbit” in the rule books.
Beyond that, several other sword and sorcery movies were proposed to be the D&D movie; Dragonslayer (1981), Conan the Barbarian (1982), Krull (1983), and Willow (1988) all had their fans. The actual Dungeons & Dragons movie from 2000 had the distinction of not only being the official “D&D movie” but also being the one that the actual fans of the game hated most. Perhaps the most “D&D” of movies was actually the Record of Lodoss War anime series (1988-93) which were originally transcripts of D&D, Tunnels & Trolls and RuneQuest game sessions.
With Onward, Pixar grabs onto the concept of a D&D game and builds a tale that could literally spring from a group’s weekly game sessions. Without spoiling the plot and sticking to what’s shown in the trailers, two elf brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) Lightfoot, live in a fantasy world that largely resembles our own. Technology abounds, as do stray feral unicorns. Cyclopes, elves, trolls and fairies rub elbows as they go about their daily lives where actual magic is but a distant legend. An unexpected magic spell goes awry and the two must set out on a quest to retrieve a magical item to set things right.
Common D&D tropes are not just Easter eggs, they are literally integral to the plot. Although a beat-up custom-painted van is not the normal mount utilized on an epic adventure, it perfectly suits “her” owner, Barley who is a proud gaming and history nerd. Of course, with a world where magic once was a common occurrence, fantasy and history are one and the same and “AdventureQuest” is the movie’s analog to D&D. True to many a D&D gamer’s fantasies, Barley finds his geekdom gives him a “I’ve prepared for this moment my whole life” idea of how to proceed with “their noble quest.”
Guided by AdventureQuest’s equivalent to D&D’s Dungeon Master’s Guide, Barley teaches his younger brother how to wield his new-found magical abilities, introducing concepts such as spell levels and effects that are instantly familiar to anyone who has rolled up a character. And, of course, the adventure starts at a tavern, and requires the use of a map to the destination.
Mild spoiler ahead. Skip to the next paragraph if desired. Throughout the movie, as Barley is introducing Ian to the concept of magic, adventuring and the perils of questing, he makes frequent mention of a very specific monster, the gelatinous cube. The cube is a non-sentient wandering monster that is exactly what its name says. Think of a 10’x10’x10′ cube of acidic gelatin that will dissolve anything that it engulfs. This has been a part of the D&D bestiary since the publication of the games Monster Manual in 1977. It has since appeared in every subsequent edition of the game. Unlike most of the monsters within the pages, it is one of the few original creations by the TSR staff, and the rights still belong to D&D’s current publishers, Wizards of the Coast which is itself part of the toy giant, Hasbro. Yes, a gelatinous cube does make an appearance in the movie. And it is exactly as described in the Monster Manual. At the end credits, Pixar specifically thanks Wizards of the Coast for their help and allowing them to use the cube plus another uniquely D&D monster, which I must admit that I must have missed.
For their part, Wizards of the Coast acknowledged their participation in Onward, and the team members who were involved were very excited about their contributions to the movie.
Onward is a combination of different genres; coming of age, road movie, buddy comedy and with more than a little “Weekend at Bernies” thrown in. The world building is fairly deep. Above all, it has heart and the story comes together very well. It’s hard to say whether this will become an instant classic, but it works on multiple levels for different age groups and it will no doubt be one of those movies that the family – or even groups of friends – sit down to watch more than once.
If one has young relatives whom they wish to introduce to D&D, or role-playing in general, Onward serves as an easy introduction to the concepts. Of course, it is also possible that young movie goers may find the idea of playing the same game that the Lightfoot boys enjoy to be irresistible and encourage their adults to buy D&D, if not run the campaign. As D&D has been used for educational and therapeutic purposes globally, there are certainly worse ways to bring families together. As an old gamer saying goes, “the family that slays together, stays together.
Onward stars Chris Pratt as Barley Lightfoot, Tom Holland as his younger brother Ian, and Julia Lous-Dreyfus as their mother Laurel. It’s now in theaters everywhere.