RPG Evolution: Onward: A D&D Movie for Kids

We've known for some time now that Dungeons & Dragons has become a much larger part of the pop-culture fabric, thanks in no small part to streaming, parents introducing the game to their kids, and the pandemic encouraging social games while maintaining social distance. D&D reached a new milestone when it became the inspiration for a Pixar movie, Onward. Please note that this review contains spoilers.


For the uninitiated, Onward takes place in a fantasy universe that has been modernized. Think Shadowrun but with less guns and more suburbia. In a world populated by elves, centaurs, cyclops, trolls, pixies, and goblins, magic has been forgotten. Centaurs drive to work instead of gallop; pixies ride motorcycles instead of fly; dragons are pets and alicorns are pests. In the middle of this happy confluence of modernity and fantasy are two brothers, younger Ian (Tom Holland) and older Barley (Chris Pratt). They have one opportunity to see their deceased father thanks to a magic spell, but getting it to work will require tapping into the brothers' shared fantasy heritage.

In a twist on typical "make fun of D&D" tropes, it's the cooler older brother, Barley, who is seriously invested in his tabletop game, Quests of Yore. It has several similarities to D&D, but its importance goes beyond that as Barley swears that the key to seeing their father again is in a strict interpretation of Quests of Yore's rules as written. It's pretty clear what Quests of Yore was based on:
The first shot of Barley’s tabletop RPG campaign in Quests of Yore has all the hallmarks of an ongoing D&D campaign. Rule book on the table? Check. Character sheets with a character sketch and a box showing hit points? Check. Sharpened pencil? Check. Polyhedral dice (some even in a clear dice box, just like the ones carried by your friendly neighborhood gaming store), minis, map tiles, and even some cool 3D gateways? Check, check, check, and check. As the camera pans up, there’s even a cool game master’s screen.
And of course, the obligatory licensed board game inspired by D&D is on its way. Barley isn't just a fan; he's a rules lawyer. Although this might seem annoying at first (Ian certainly thinks so), all that knowledge comes in handy when it's time to apply hard-won fantasy knowledge to real life challenges:
He knows the spell components—heart’s fire, spell decree, focus, and trust—and when all of them are required for one spell. He knows that a quest never follows the easy path. And he knows that you have to use what you’ve got available when you don’t have the right tools. Barley thinks outside the box, and he celebrates when Ian thinks outside the box and uses his creativity too.
Onward is as much about learning about what it means to be a family as it is about cherishing your passions. And it uses the typical D&D quest structure as a template, with a power struggle between Ian and Barley as they argue over following the obviously dangerous but exciting path (Barley) and the safest, sanest, most direct route (Ian):
Players complain about railroading GMs, who’ve laid out a story in advance and aren’t interested in player deviation from that path. GMs complain about pushy players, who derail a perfectly good story to focus on seemingly trivial things. The best campaigns, though, leave some room for what everyone’s excited about. In Onward, Barley stands in for the GM role, laying out facts about the world and trying to dictate the path the story should take, what kind of encounters it should have, and exactly what Ian should be learning along the way. But Ian has a different perspective, and keeps pulling toward paths Barley didn’t predict or doesn’t like.
In the end, the two brothers learn a lot about what really matters when it comes to family, facing down a manticore and a dragon along the way. Also, there's an appearance of a few monsters unique to D&D, courtesy of Wizards of the Coast:
"The D&D team was super excited to meet with the writers and producers of Pixar's Onward," said a rep for Wizards of the Coast. "There was a lot of back-and-forth in the room discussing how best to portray D&D monsters like the Beholder and the Gelatinous Cube. We love that Onward is bringing fantasy to a whole new audience, and it's a testament to how D&D storytelling is a part of the mainstream culture now."
Although the official D&D movie is still a ways off, it seems younger gamers already have a movie they can claim as their own.
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

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Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
I wonder if when looked back on through the lens of history, the fact that it flopped at the box office will be attirbuted (correctly) to CV 19? Or to the fact that "D&D movies can't be popular"?

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
I wonder if when looked back on through the lens of history, the fact that it flopped at the box office will be attirbuted (correctly) to CV 19? Or to the fact that "D&D movies can't be popular"?
Both. It was getting medium reviews before theaters shut down. Pixar putting a movie out in the early spring, rather than during a holiday season, also indicates they they know it wouldn't bring in the kind of ticket sales that a top-tier film could achieve at Thanksgiving or around Christmas.

Dire Bare

This was the last movie my wife and I saw in a theater before the lockdown started in earnest. We weren't dying to see it originally, but there wasn't much else out at the time. We both were surprised by just how fun it was, and how much D&D love was built into it. If we didn't already have Disney+, we'd be buying it on Bluray for sure.

I had the same experience. I wasn't dying to see the film, in fact I was avoiding it for some reason. But once I did sit down and watch it on Disney+, I really enjoyed it! Lots of fun!

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