If you held a gun to my head, I wouldn’t be able to name all 22 of Pixar’s films. That’s not to say that some of them are bad or anything, because the studio has maintained a pretty consistent level of quality across the board, from the animation artistry to the surprising and emotional narratives at play in every effort. You know there will be humor, and you know there will be heartfelt life lessons, and you know both will be geared toward kids but at a level adults will enjoy as well. You know they’re a safe bet, basically. Yet there’s also an element of personal taste at play, and the fact is that some of their films are simply more memorable, or strike a nerve that others don’t. For me, the pinnacle of Pixar is a tie between Ratatouille and WALL-E, two movies that came out a year apart over a decade ago — and neither of which spawned the sequels that juggernauts like Toy Story, The Incredibles, or Finding Nemo earned.
Onward is unmistakably a Pixar film, with all the same hallmarks as its predecessors, and while it may not ever be anyone’s peak-Pixar pick in ten years it’s still a fun ride. It’s no Toy Story, and it isn’t exactly a WALL-E either, though to my delight I think it shares some common thematic DNA with the latter. The opening narration quickly establishes the world of the film, one that looks a lot like ours except for one key difference: there used to be magic. Only magic is hard, and so over time scientific innovation won out over spell-casting simply because flicking a switch is easier than starting a fire with a well-aimed wave of a wand. Thus the legacy of magic fell into disuse and eventually disappeared almost entirely. It’s that “almost” that gives our heroes their call to adventure, as two brothers discover a visitation spell left to them by their deceased father — a spell that promises to bring him back to life for one glorious day, so he can see who they’ve grown up to be. It’s a treacly premise that’s leavened by the specificity of the characters — cowardly Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) and his lovable doofus of an older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt) — and the twists of their journey. Twists like the fact that the spell fails on their first attempt, leaving them with only half a father to bond with. To be precise: The lower half. Daddy Long Legs, indeed!
It turns out that Barley’s years as table-top role player have made him an expert on magic (this world’s “Dungeons And Dragons” riff happens to be historically accurate). Meanwhile, Ian is the one who actually contains the spark of magic necessary to take their father’s wizard staff and make their dreams come true. Together the pair set off in Barley’s dilapidated van to find a mystical gem and complete the spell — and their father — before the sun goes down on their magical reunion. This is a heroic quest remixed as a coming-of-age teen roadtrip romp, and though the film pulls from so many familiar sources it still mines pleasant surprises along the way. Magic may be real, and it may be back, but it’s the smaller moments between the characters that matter. This is a movie about taking risks — or, in Barley-speak, choosing the path of greatest peril over the easy one. Growth is change, and change only happens if you step outside of your comfort zone. Thus the greatest triumphs here are deeply personal. Ian perfecting the hardest lightning spell in the RPG manual is nothing compared to him mustering the guts to merge into traffic on the freeway. Barley’s decision to sacrifice his beloved van is a truly — and literally — ascendant moment of everyday wonder that doesn’t need to be MAGICAL to be magical. Their mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), goes on a not-unremarkable journey of her own to save them from the gem’s attendant curse, finding a friend for life in “The Manticore” (Octavia Spencer) and putting her morning jazzercise routine to work as she tries to slay a dragon.
Of course, the Lightfoots aren’t the only ones who change. Their quest has wide-reaching consequences, changing the lives of those they meet along the way. The smartest thing Onward explores is how that loss of magic would have impacted the magical creatures inhabiting this world, and this is where the WALL-E resemblance comes in. In their own way, both films look at the relationship between technology and humanity, where one becomes a crutch that fundamentally alters, or weakens, the other. Though far less dire than the immobile people of WALL-E, Onward shows centaurs that ride in cars rather than run, and pixies that have forgotten how to fly. Both films also recognize how complicated an issue it is, and that these are not choices made by one generation but cumulative choices that add up over countless generations. We are all impacted by the choices of our ancestors, and progress is change, too — but just because the gains are worth it, that doesn’t mean that nothing is lost along the way. By bringing magic back to the world, Ian and Barley don’t instantly solve all their world’s problems — but they do open people’s eyes to their own potential, and the perilous paths waiting to be walked. It’s possible to have it all, but it’s never easy.
The film also has something beautiful to say about family, and the many forms that can take. Laurel is a wonderful mother-figure not just because she’s independent and tough as hell, but because in the end she gives her all to support her boys and their mission despite her concern for their wellbeing. That’s what being a parent is all about — not sheltering your kids from danger but helping them get face it. With a sword, if you can manage it. It’s also worth noting that this mission to meet Dad never reflexively implies that Laurel, as a single mother, isn’t enough for her sons. She is, and they know it. In turn, Ian, who never met his father, comes to recognize the forces that shaped Barley, who did have memories of his dad — and likewise realizes that it’s Barley who has shaped him. There’s also a few notable step-parents in the mix, with Laurel’s milquetoast boyfriend Officer Colt trying to find the right level of responsibility in Ian and Barley’s lives, as well as his colleague Officer Spector (Lena Waithe), who casually mentions that her girlfriend has kids. Yes, a lesbian character — the first in a Disney animated film! It’s a shame that this was touted so hard in the promotional lead up to the film, because it only amounts to a single line of dialogue and would play much better if it wasn’t saddled with the baggage of our expectations. What I applaud isn’t DISNEY’S LGBTQ+ REPRESENTATION (I mean, I do, but also, you still have a ways to go, Disney) — what I applaud is how seamless and naturally it fits into the film. There’s no record scratch or pause for emphasis. She has a girlfriend. Women date women. I appreciate that the film approaches this as a matter of course, even if the marketing machine wanted a medal for it, and that space was given for that representation in a film that has remarkably few speaking roles as it is.
Also, as if it even needs to be said anymore: the animation is delightful! Director Dan Scanlon previously helmed Monsters University for Pixar and had a hand in numerous other films for the studio, going all the way back to Brave, so he’s knows the standard he needs to meet here. The physics of the world are believable, but really shine in the bigger action pieces (the climax with the dragon made of debris is particularly inventive). I don’t know how the creators managed to make a
Smurf troll blue elf look exactly like Tom Holland, but by golly they did. Barley bears less resemblance to Chris Pratt, but still displays a welcome whiff of Parks and Rec’s Andy Dwyer, which is a nice way of saying Pratt is exercising his better set of charms here. The best character design, however, definitely goes to Guinevere, Barley’s van — complete with a spray-painted pegasus on the side.
The 22nd Pixar joint is probably not going to go down as one of its most memorable, but even if it is a mid-tier effort it’s a deeply satisfying experience fit for the whole family.
Header Image Source: Disney/Pixar