In Pixar’s latest animation, Onward, Tom Holland and Chris Pratt star as Ian and Barley Lightfoot — two elf brothers who go on a quest to complete a spell that’ll temporarily restore their late father to life. Obstacles to their mission abound but the siblings must work together for the chance to see their dad once again.
The setting of Onward merges fantasy with reality — positing a modern world where unicorns, wizards, centaurs, and elves once flourished with magic… but, after the invention of electricity, the ease of flipping a light switch undermined the effort of learning magic to create fire. The convenience of technology sadly led to a loss of knowledge and appreciation for magical arts, yet it was delightful to see how Onward depicts its fantasy elements in the contemporary metropolis of New Mushroomton. Skyscrapers are topped by crenellations, the local tavern’s become a family-friendly restaurant complete with a mascot, and gangs of biker pixies are surprisingly dangerous.
I love fantasy and it was charming to see how Onward grafts this genre onto modern life. There’s also a true sense of poignancy surrounding the loss of magic and wonderment for simplicity and convenience.
In the first act, the world on Onward is explained and the main characters introduced. The opening scenes developing the Lightfoot family was the only misstep in the story for me. Somehow, despite the necessity of knowing who these characters are and understanding their flaws, the set-up felt obvious and cliched. How the character dynamics are revealed felt heavy-handed and I became impatient for the actual adventure to start. Once it does, thankfully, the story proves to be an engaging one.
Despite the stakes raised by the brother’s quest, the heart of the story rests with Ian and Barley’s relationship. Their mother describes it best when she says that Ian’s afraid of everything and Barley’s afraid of nothing. Both siblings wish they could’ve spent more time with their father (who died when they were young), so when presented with the chance, they understandably go for it. Their dad left them the means to enact a magic spell that’ll bring him back to life, just for a day, but when the enchantment goes awry and only the lower half of their father’s body is reanimated, the boys need to find a rare phoenix stone to complete the spell.
Barley’s love of history and fantasy role-playing game “Quests of Yore” (which is based on real magical history in the world of Onward) helps them get started on their mission with Guinevere—Barley’s unreliable but valiant van. The brothers determinedly work together despite their clashing personalities. Barley is blindly assured that Ian can master his magical powers, but Ian is timid and hesitant in his abilities. His lack of daring stokes audience empathy and creates a conflict that has all the hallmarks of a traditional fantasy quest story. Ian must conquer his fears and reservations to become a stronger and more empowered character…. but confident Barley realises he must also learn from his brother to become more reliable and responsible.
Pixar delivers more of its customary emotional storytelling using layers of the brothers’ relationship. It’s the crux of the story and what made me pull out a pack of tissues at the heart-warming ending, then call my own siblings when the movie was over.
Onward is a beautifully told tale of family and adventure with characters that grow throughout. The light humour is also amusing, especially from my favourite character, the Manticore, and her realisation life isn’t just about managing debts and staying afloat. The art of the cityscapes and landscapes is also highly detailed and gorgeous to behold on screen.
Children will love Onward, as will adults, although some may find the themes of the story overfamiliar. The emotional beats align predictably with much of Pixar’s earlier releases, but there’s something special in the way Onward embraces individualism and self-empowerment. The fantasy setting added to my admiration because it encourages the audience to see their world in a different way. Where the real magic is in how we love the people and things we cherish in our everyday life.
Voices & Crew
director: Dan Scanlon.
writers: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley & Keith Bunin.
voices: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus & Octavia Spencer.