Sigmund Freud conclusively proved that all psychological hang-ups were about Unresolved Father Issues. Joseph Campbell conclusively proved that all stories were about solving psychological hang-ups. George Lucas conclusively proved that from now on, all movies had to be based on Joseph Campbell's model. Siggy and Joe were talking metaphorically, but George took it literally and so have all George's followers. Dead fathers, absents fathers, weak fathers, harsh fathers, the movie industry is clogged up with bloody fathers. God, they'll be trying to bring the Oedipus Complex into Hamlet next.
Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) lost their father to cancer when they were very young. Big brother Barley has only three memories of him; little brother Ian has none at all. (Spoiler: There is a fourth memory that Barley has never shared with anyone.) On Ian's sixteenth birthday they head off on a Hero's Journey, so they can do Stage 9 (atonement with the father) and move on to stages 12-16 (the return.)
There is a twist.
Ian and Barley are Elves. The movie is set in a cod D&D fantasy world, of winged unicorns, centaurs, manticores, and flying pixies. At some point in the past, everyone stopped using magic and started using technology instead. "Long ago the world was full of wonder. It was adventurous, exciting and best of all there was magic." But now all the wonder and magic has gone out of the world. Ian and Barley live in a normal American house and go to a normal American high school and drive a normal American van and don't think it particularly odd that Mum's new boyfriend is a centaur. Although they don't much like the fact that he's a policeman.
That's not the twist. That's a kind of visual gag, with which, this being Pixar, a great deal of fun is had. Feral unicorns raid trashcans; adventurers taverns are rebranded as family restaurants; mobs of pixies terrorise gas stations on teeny weeny motorbikes. It's kind of the same gag as the Incredibles: "what if the Fantastic Four were just like folks". (Admittedly, the point of the Fantastic Four was already that the Fantastic Four are just like folks, but, that's a different point.)
The twist is that Ian and Barley are, er, actually believable teenagers, with an actually convincing big brother / younger brother relationship and an actually believable Mum. The Quest, in Barley's run-down van, turns out exactly like every other road movie. The real journey is, of course, what they learn about themselves on the way. But it's done with nuance, wit, and some subtlety, so that the really, really obvious and corny ending comes across as neither obvious nor corny. You may possibly find you have something in your eye for a second.
It just works.
Not quite sure what else there is to say. Dad has left the brothers an old wizard's staff and the text of a spell which will bring him back for a single day. Ian has natural magic ability, but Barley is, so to speak, a muggle. In trying to cast the spell, they damage the staff, and so are obliged to go on quest to find a replacement Phoenix Stone. Barley is a big fan of an "historically accurate" board game that is very carefully coded to be something like Dungeons & Dragons and something like Magic: The Gathering. As a result, he knows how magic is supposed to work, and can teach Ian to be a wizard. Which is a classic set-up: the experienced character with knowledge but no power, and the naive 'chosen one' with power but no knowledge. Several of the turning points in the quest involve Barley consciously understanding the cliches of the genre and consciously following them. Rather than heading down the freeway to the castle where the magic gem might be, he insists they take the indirect Path of Peril -- because in D&D, the obvious route is never the correct one. (And possibly because Road of Trials is Campbell's stage 6.) Naturally, Ian deals with the Final Peril by using all the spells which he has learned on the journey in clever and unexpected ways. Which, okay, also shows a strong J.K Rowling influence.
And of course, the result of completing the quest is not only dealing with their unresolved Daddy issues. It's also making the world adventurous and wonderful and even magical again. And it's about Ian growing up and moving on.
Rite of passage movie, hero's journey, buddy road movie, Potter tribute, with meta-textual irony, gamer references and jokes. What's not to like? Sorry I missed this one first time round.
(It is rather cool that RPGs are sufficiently mainstream to appear in this kind of movie. But I can remember when the suggestion that someone could use D&D to learn how to cast actual spells would have been a TERRIBLE SLANDER put about by the ENEMIES OF GAMING. Are, Drac, whatever happened to you?)
I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.
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