Life’s wonders are easy to miss. Amid our banal everyday lives, we are bogged down by our jobs, home life, and school work to the point that we forget the world’s majestic qualities. Whether it’s the natural beauty of locations like the grand canyon, man made mechanical wonders like skyscrapers, the mysteries of space, or the mere existence of the duck billed platypus, we regularly sweep aside these awe inspiring items in favor of a dreary routine. While tunnel visioning our way through daily existence, we forget that life is bigger than just us. Living is, in and of itself, a miracle, and all too often, we take this magic for granted.
Onward captures this feeling on a literal level. The good new Disney Pixar animated movie by director Dan Scanlon transports audiences to a fantasy realm reminiscent of modern day suburbia. In the introductory sequence, the film explains that magic once existed in abundance, and wizards channeled this power in order to benefit every fantastical species. As time marched on however, the world’s creatures abandoned magic for the convenience of science. Onward’s realm (filled with car traffic, gas stations, family themed restaurants, and pawn shops) contains more in common with our dull reality rather than a JRR Tolkien style Middle Earth or a George RR Martin style Westeros, and as a result, magic is a relic of the past.
Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), Onward’s lead protagonist, personifies this theme. Ian is an elf with severe social anxiety. At high school, Ian interacts with his classmates in a timid manner and can’t even muster up the courage to invite people to his 16th birthday party. Despite being a literal fantasy creature, Ian doesn’t see the bigger picture as his anxiety prevents him from regular activities like making friends and learning how to drive. Purely out of fear, Ian just can’t see his world’s fantastical qualities.
Ian’s deceased father is at the root of his fearful state. His dad died while Ian was very young, and as a result, Ian never had a father figure. In fact, Ian doesn’t have any memories of him, and due to his lack of fatherly love, Ian is a mess. He allows fear to run his life, and even though the world is full of adventure, Ian, like many of us, prefers to let anxiety rule him.
Of course, this fragile mental state doesn’t last. Onward is a good tale of a boy overcoming his fears, grief, and insecurities in order to experience life at the fullest. Ian’s Mom Laurel Lightfoot (Julia Louis – Dreyfus) kicks this plot into motion by gifting Ian and his brother Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) a wizard’s staff that belonged to their father. Along with the wizard’s staff, the boys received a spell written by their father that would allow him to return from the dead for one whole day. Events, however, go awry when Ian and Barley botch the spell, resurrecting only half of their father from the waist down, and in order to correct this mistake, Ian, Barley, and half of their father embark on a quest to find a magical gem that’s required to finish the spell, a tall feat that needs to be completed within 24 hours before the spell breaks.
Onward’s story contains an understandable thematic core. Despite existing within a fantasy world, Ian’s phobias and unwillingness to take risks are immediately relatable to many of us who’ve had to find our own way through life’s various trials and tribulations. When Ian and Barley mess up the magical incantation critical to bringing their father back to life, we, the audience, can empathize because we’ve had to maneuver through similar situations. Sure, our various predicaments didn’t involve a Gandalf inspired mage’s staff, but our struggles aren’t any less significant. Whenever failing to accomplish an important Herculean feat, a depressive feeling of personal inadequacy often follows close behind. Especially when younger, taking on the dreams, challenges, and responsibilities of adulthood can feel insurmountable, yet to survive after failing, we must dust ourselves off and move forward with our lives. In this regard, Onward’s coming of age story hits many emotional pressure points as Ian learns what it means to grow up.
Onward’s fictional suburban fantasy world reflects this struggle. Throughout the story Ian and Barley interact with various characters who lost their way in a consumerist terminal late stage capitalist landscape. For a few examples: a once fearsome Manticore (Octavia Spencer) has let her once unique hole in the wall bar to become a family friendly restaurant to appease her shareholders and pixies like Dewdrop (Grey Griffin) have forgotten how to fly. Whether out of fear or ignorance, the mystical creatures in Onward’s setting compromised their values, and like Ian, they have to find a way to press forward and grow as people.
Barley, Ian’s older brother, is the most important of these characters. Like many young people, Barley lives at home with his mother despite being old enough to be independent. He’s unemployed, drives a dumpy van named Gwenevere, and (to my adoration) he loves heavy metal and wears a punk rock style battle vest. Even though Ian is somewhat embarrassed to be around his brother, Barley is the soul of Onward. Despite how Onward’s commercialized world repeatedly minimizes Barley’s societal worth, Barley still finds a way to maintain some semblance of positivity in a cynical realm. I love him.
Admittedly, Onward contains a few faults. Some aspects of the film are clearly and obviously choreographed to tug at the viewer’s heart strings. Whether it’s the inclusion of an unimportant LGBTQ character via a throw away line or the film’s predictable plot, Onward made me feel cynical at times which is a problem for a movie that warns against the dangers of cynicism.
With that said, Onward is a good Pixar family film. While Onward isn’t in the upper echelon of top quality Pixar movies like Wall E, Up, or Cocoa, the movie is a fun and moving experience with a great message. During hard and difficult times, Onward literally preaches the importance of moving onward because it’s the only way we can move forward and grow, and that is in and of itself a great lesson.