If the opportunity was presented before you to spend one more day with someone you’d lost, what would you be willing to do? Where would you be willing to journey? What tasks would you be willing to undertake just for a few more hours with a loved one? This is the question at the heart of Onward, the latest collaboration between Walt Disney and Pixar. The film finds two brothers on a hurried journey to complete a spell left to them by their long-deceased father. There’s a great deal of emotion loaded into the premise and the script injects a myriad of laughs through the creative manipulation of expectations the magical environment affords. Though loss is a central feature of Onward, there’s a pervasive hopefulness that brings a great deal of joy, even if it also elicits tears.
A long time ago, there was magic in every corner of the world. It’s not just mermaids swimming the oceans, pixies flying the skies, or adventurers battling mighty dragons, but actual wielders of magic using their abilities to help those in need in a variety of ways. With the rise technological advancements, however, practitioners of magic slipped away until the existence of magic was considered nothing more than myth. That is, until Ian Lightfoot’s (voiced by Tom Holland) 16th birthday when his mother, Laurel (voiced by Julia Louise-Dreyfus), gifts him and his older brother Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt) a present from long-deceased father, Wilden (voiced by Kyle Bornheimer). This was no ordinary gift, but a spell which would enable Wilden to return for 24 hours. When the spell goes wrong and only half of their father returns, the two boys begin a quest to find the pieces they need to complete the spell before time runs out and they never seen their father again.
The average audience is likely unaware that the story for Onward is a personal one. Inspired by his own experience with loss at a young age, director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) took the story of his and his brother’s loss and developed it, with Keith Bunin and Jason Headley, into the story and screenplay audiences see on-screen. At first, this sounds incredibly heavy: a tale of two sons desperately trying to gain time with a father they each barely knew, if knew at all. Ian was too young to remember his father and Barley only has three memories to speak of. Each wants more and the screenplay never downplays their emotional urgency, even when it means that these two Elfin boys must conjure gas from nothingness, evoke an disguise spell, and do far more to achieve their goal. Cleverly, each magical-based task serves the emotional cause, helping to move both Ian, a timid adolescent, and Barley, an effulgent dreamer, toward becoming capable adults.
Onward is nothing if not well thought out. From the obvious triquetra t-shirt visible in photos of Wilden representative of Wilden and his sons, to the subtext of each trial the Lightfoot boys undertake, Scanlon, Bunin, and Headley ensure that every aspect of the world is fleshed out. It’s this level of detail which makes much of Onward easy to connect with despite the barrier of (a) animation and (b) the fantasy elements that make up the entire film. So while it may be funny to see Barley rocking a denim vest adorned with heavy metal symbols and driving a patchwork van, a resplendent unicorn sprayed on the side, these represent more than just token attributes of a metalhead. From a different perspective, Barley is a historian of his native culture, unwilling to leave behind the traditions of his Elvin people in the face of modernity. From another, he’s entirely self-taught: driving a van he built himself without guidance, studying the past as a means of holding onto it. Played for laughs against Ian’s shyness and consternation, especially with Pratt’s Star-Lord-meets-Andy-Dwyer charm, Barley is a parfait of meaning in one character. This character also allows the film to suggest, though not explore, the deeper nature of turning our backs on our indigenous history and the dangers that come along with it. It would be a bold move for a Disney/Pixar film to take on such notions, and they come close here, but the film spends no time on it at all. Much of the conflict between Ian and Barley comes from their opposing views on the reality of their historical past: Ian accepting it to be simply stories, while Barley insists that it’s truth. The story sets up each one as correct, or each believing themselves correct, which is required for the two to address the suggested rift Ian has with his perceived screw-up brother. But by spending so much effort on fixing the rift, the larger notion of cultural erasure goes by the wayside. This, of course, makes sense in the larger sense as Onward can best be identified as a cross between a coming-of-age tale and a road trip buddy comedy that just so happens to take place in a previously magical alt-future, and the exploration of that alt-future is less significant than the individual character journeys. For many, Ian’s story is the lead and requires the most storytelling to explore and grow. For this reviewer, there is nothing more devastating than Barley stating, “how can you call me a screw-up if you never let me try?” Somehow, this shattered me more than anything else.
Don’t fret. Amidst the themes of love, loss, and family, there’s plenty of Dad humor, too. It’s not just Colt Bronco (voiced by Mel Rodriguez), a police officer centaur who is dating Laurel and who struggles to connect with the boys, with his “working hard or hardly working” joke, but the way the designers for Onward manifest Wilden: a literal pair of legs connected by a butt. And those legs put in the work. They manage to convey tenderness, affection, and even induce awkwardness that only a parental unit can. In one particularly silly moment, the legs take to dancing in the most off-beat rhythmic manner, unintentionally quelling a fraternal dispute. With the simplest of moments, the tension is gone and a lightness returns by the mere act of a butt wiggle. That’s the power of an awkward Dad, especially one who is admired so deeply by his kids. If the legs aren’t enough, you’ll enjoy seeing a gremlin as a pawn broker (voiced by a Tracey Ullman), a biker gang full of pixies, and majestic unicorns turned to something akin to feral raccoons. Truly, it’s a world of wonder, and it’s nothing if not willing to poke fun at itself to stay entertaining.
This is where, however, a noticeable issue arrives. As engaging as the story is in its exploration of grief, it never seems to go all in on the implications of what this journey means. Pixar has never shied away from heady topics (one need only look at Toy Story 3 or Zootopia to confirm), but Onward seems to stop just short of a real emotional wallop in favor of a soft touch. This could be a result of Disney influence as the studio rarely wants to push its audience into serious areas of discussion, or just an aftereffect of trying to balance the light with the dark. More than any other Disney/Pixar film, Onward doesn’t shy away from openly presenting loss and grief, it’s just that the film wants to wrap us up in a loving hug more than it wants to explore the emotions it evokes. Perhaps it only feels that way because the chemistry between Pratt and Holland comes across as absolutely natural. Honestly, the fact that the two got to record together in the same studio instead of working solo helps to bolster the performances and makes Ian and Barley seem more real. This will be fine for many as Onward is bound to induce a great many tears in theaters, especially from the Brandi Carlile end-credit song “Carried Me With You,” which sings the heart song of parents to their kids, kids to their siblings, and really anyone who’s ever felt the sting of loss.
Wherever you are in life, love and loss will touch you. Onward reminds that those who are gone never really leave us. They are in the lives they’ve touched. They are in the stories they helped create. They are a part of a past that cannot be erased, not even when time seems to have forgotten them. It only takes one journey of any size and scope to bring them back to us. So prepare thy self, dear adventurers. You’re about to enter a world of magic, and the best weapons you have are right by your side and in your heart.
In theaters March 6th, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.