Once upon a time...
…the world was full of wonder. The magic of the world was a spectacle to be explored and expanded, but the complexities of magic were replaced with the simplicities of invention and convenience. Thus, the magic dwindled, and the world changed forever.
Now you are in the present day- with mortgage payments, air pollution, stray animals, and more aspects that make up modern suburban and city life. And that’s where the film Onward (2020) begins. In a mystical, suburban town- New Mushroomton- there lives a 16 year old boy, Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) and his older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt.) On Ian’s 16th birthday, he learns that magic still exists in his modern world, and he can use it to see his late father for just one day. The film then ensues into a journey of brothers, Ian and Barley, trying to find an ancient magic so that they can spend that day with their father.
What do you expect from any children’s animated film? I, personally, enjoy the imagination- the creation of new worlds, the beloved characters, and the ability to translate real life matters to a child audience through inventiveness, artistry, and a respect for children’s understanding. Pixar’s Onward succeeds on every one of these points for me. The writers, director, and entire production team behind the creation of Onward manifested a truly magnificent world of wizardry and fantasy. From the creatures and set pieces, to the intricacies of the history of the world, the detail placed on every aspect of this story is what makes it so truly special. The emphasis on magic still being around in the world, even when it’s not visible, was a beautiful subtext that carries a thoughtful lesson.
However, at the center of Onward is the story of brotherhood. Director Dan Scanlon derived the central plot from his own personal life and relationship with his brother. Scanlon is also known for writing and directing the sequel film, Monsters University (2013), which carried on the legacy of the Monsters Inc (2001) film and shed a new light on the beloved characters.
Scanlon’s plot in Onward surrounding the relationship between the main family is very powerful in multiple dynamics- from the brothers, to their parents, and the navigation through loss. Older brother Barley is a true believer of magic. His dedication to the history of the world and his favorite role-playing game is the pinnacle of hope and guidance for Ian throughout the adventure. The reference of role-playing games akin to Dungeons and Dragons highlights the subtext of finding magic and newness in your world through imagination. Their relationship grows through this magic as the film progresses, and it is sure to be touching to adults and children alike who share the same bonds with people in their own lives. It sure brought me to tears, because it reminded me of the bonds I share with my own sister who made me understand the true blessing of a sibling-ship.
The other characters of this film are each also uniquely important. The Manticore (Octavia Spencer) and Laurel Lightfoot (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the brothers’ mother, are on their own spectacular adventure that brings a mother’s love and power to the story. Even the films other side characters left a memorable mark on me through the laughs they offered.
With the magnificent world and creatures imagined for this film, the animation team had a lot to work with, and they nailed it. This epic adventure would not have been possible without the talents behind every bumpy road and every mysterious cave. Like the works of Coco (2017) and other Pixar films before it, Onward is elevated on multiple elements through the hard work of the production teams that brought a beautiful story to life.
Aside from the emotional punches that drive the story, the film is very formulaic in it’s journey- much like An Unexpected Journey (2012) and many other adventure films before it. There are constant obstacles the characters must overcome that seem to make their end-goal seem farther and farther away- each new one also offering a lot of laughs and memorable moments. There is conflict that leads to a deeper understanding by the end. The themes of imagination, brotherhood, and the process of mourning are done so cleverly and exciting that the end result is that satisfactory feeling you look forward to when you walk into an new Pixar film.