Pixar’s latest wonder Onward is a hugely inspirational family-friendly fantasy that gains a lot from embracing elements that many animated films tend to gloss over. Dominic Corry examines what’s special about this latest addition to the Disney/Pixar stable—streaming now on Disney+.
One of the most prominent of those is the complicated dynamics that exist within every family unit. While many animated films lean towards presenting idealised notions of domesticity, Onward isn’t afraid to show that most familes don’t conform to the “traditional” conception that most family-targeted films offer up.
The family at the centre of Onward is both loving and messy, and the film is all the more impactful for it.
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* Our interview with the makers of Onward
Onward takes place in a world populated by a wide variety of magical creatures that have long since left their magicality behind. The rise of technology that makes life easier has rendered magic no longer relevant, so even though there’s plenty of unicorns, pixies and goblins, none of them represent anything other than everyday normality.
In the middle of all this is the suburban Lightfoot family, who are elves. Which again, ain’t no special thing in this world.
Our principle protagonist is the slightly gawky teenager Ian, whom Pixar fans may notice bears more than a passing resemblance to Alfredo Linguini, the young aspiring chef from Pixar’s 2007 Oscar-winning hit Ratatouille. This is apparently not a coincidence.
Ian is voiced by Tom Holland, better known to the wider world as the current live action Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ian is something of a misfit amongst his high school peers, and Holland brings a similar tone of endearing and realistic pubescent angst to Ian that he does to that of Peter Parker, and it’s a quality from which Onward benefits greatly.
The next most important character is Ian’s older brother Barley, voiced with typical exuberance by another member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Chris Pratt, who plays Starlord in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Barley is a bit of a late-starter in life who’s been hitting snooze on his college plans for a couple of years now. He’s an enthusiastic proponent of the kind of magic that no longer plays a role in this world, and also something of an embarrassment to the more reserved Ian, but more on both of those things later.
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Ian and Barley’s mother is voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Seinfeld, Veep) and she manages to convey the quiet heroism of being a single parent in her sprightly vocal performance. She’s a single parent because Ian and Barley’s father passed away when Ian was too young to remember him.
This is one of the braver choices made by Onward , and it stands out within the context of of the studio’s repeated focus on paternal relationships.
In addition to honestly reflecting the fractured status of many modern families, the absence of Ian’s biological father informs the character’s resentment towards his mother’s romance with a centaur police officer.
It’s also the motivating factor behind the film’s plot, which concerns Ian’s burning desire to know his late father, Wilden. An opportunity to do just that is presented on his sixteenth birthday when he comes into possession of a magical staff that Wilden has bequeathed him and Barley. The staff, along with a special gem, will allow Ian to perform a “visitation spell” that will bring Wilden back for exactly one day.
It’s everything Ian’s ever wanted, but when things go awry during his recitation of the spell, only Wilden’s legs show up. This denies Ian the reunion he’s become very excited for, but Barley—whose knowledge of old school magic derived from a Dungeons & Dragons/Magic: The Gathering-esque role-playing game called Quests of Yore is now suddenly relevant—informs him if they perform the spell again within 24 hours, the rest of rest of their dad will generate. But they will need another magical gem in order to do so, and this magic-less world isn’t exactly overflowing with them, so a magical quest is required to retrieve one.
With less than 24 hours to gain another gem and complete the spell to properly bring their father back, Ian is forced to put his fraternal frustration aside and join Barley on a quest initially undertaken in Barley’s bodaciously-decorated van, the side of which is adorned with a totally rockin’ Pegasus.
At this point, the film transitions into a delightfully skewed-take on the classic road trip movie that brings Ian and Barley’s differences to the fore. It’s a dynamic that beneficially brings to mind other iconic Pixar odd couples such as Woody and Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story, Marlin and Dory from Finding Nemo, Russell and Carl from Up and WALL-E and EVE from WALL-E.
Nobody does comedic friction like Pixar, and they’re firing on all cylinders in this regard in Onward, which slowly begins to reveal how this brotherly relationship is perhaps the most important one in the film.
As you might imagine, Ian and Barley’s quest is far from smooth sailing, and amongst the many constraints and characters they encounter is a Manticore (a human/lion/scorpion hybrid) named Corey, voiced unmistakably (but not distractingly) by the great Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures, The Help).
What was once her castle is now a family restaurant, a transition that embodies Onward‘s delightful subversion of fantasy role playing game tropes.
But Pixar isn’t just interested in the general awareness of these tropes. It dives deep into this often maligned sub-genre to demonstrate a true appreciation and affection for a world that mainstream pop culture has often shown a dismissive disdain—if not outright hostility—towards.
There aren’t too many movies with running jokes about a gelatinous blob, which is about as deep a cut as you could make from the world of Dungeons & Dragons, a game that took several generations to emerge from the hysterical perception that many had towards it in the 1980s.
It’s another example of the creative generosity shown by Onward, another instant Pixar classic that sneaks up on you to generate just as many tears as laughs.