Onward brought a little magic back into the world. Pixar Animation Studios officially turns 25 as of 2020. After 7 Pixar sequels (and/or prequels) in the 2010’s, Onward marked the return to original ideas for awhile. It’s somewhat fitting that the decade began with Toy Story 3 and ended with Toy Story 4. Especially since it turned out to be the final Pixar production with input from their founder John Lasseter. Onward asks the question, what if mythical creatures lived in the modern world? Urban fantasy is far from a new concept. Just look at movies like Bright. The difference was the always reliable Pixar formula. I’ll admit Onward looked weird to me, but I’m a big fan/expert of high fantasy.
Like all the great Pixar movies, human emotions are given to the not quite human. In this case it’s mostly elves in a non-human world. The emotional center of Onward came from Monsters University director Dan Scanlon. Who also has an older brother and lost his father at a young age. It’s only fitting that Onward was the last movie my brother and I went to see in theaters (before you know what happened). The brotherly story was very relatable, but sadly Onward suffered at the box-office. Until they just decided to put it on Disney+ several months early. It’s unfortunate, but I’m happy Onward reached an even bigger audience than it might have gotten as an original Pixar film…
Onward exploits its Disney ownership with the Simpsons short Playdate with Destiny. The second cute Maggie Simpson baby adventure where she falls in love with another baby. Onward presses onward with an adventure that hits close to home. Long ago the world was full of magic. Making Onward the second Pixar movie after Brave to involve magic. The world is inhabited by tons of familiar mythical creatures. Regardless of which mythology they belong to. There’s elves, centaurs, trolls, fauns, gnomes, mermaids, cyclopses, sprites, unicorns, dragons and so much more. Each character has a very stylized look with colorful appearances. Elves have a light blue skin tone with big pointy ears and dark blue hair. Although the world used to be a lot like Lord of the Rings or World of Warcraft, magic was hard so they quit. Mimicking our own advancements in technology, increased laziness, and eventual modern society.
The suburban fantasy setting New Mushroomton boasts stellar computer animation. With so much little detail in every outfit, object, and location. It just doesn’t take too much advantage of the fantasy world. Most of it is just mundane things being done by mythical creatures. I’m not even sure how mermaids fit in. Since vehicles aren’t even changed to fit the varying sizes of a creature. The most they do is replace stop signs with halt signs and give buildings a castle or cottage feel. Unicorns are also vermin and dragons are pets. Onward once again exploits its Disney ownership by casting Tom Holland and Chris Pratt as brothers. Both actors have been around for a long time, but seemed to get famous overnight. So they were perfect to play off each other. Ian Lightfoot is your average timid teenage elf. Who just wants to fit in and be more bold. Barley Lightfoot is the exact opposite with a sense of adventure and deep obsession with historical tales of yore.
Barley plays a Dungeons & Dragons style game and tries to preserve landmarks. Although he’s known to screw up, Barley really cares about his little brother. A love only matched by his dear broken down van with unicorn mural Guinevere. Ian & Barley have a dragon named Blazey and live with their loving mother Laurel. This was the first Pixar role for Julia Louis-Dreyfus since A Bug’s Life. Laurel is a strong willed mom who’s currently dating goofy centaur police officer Colt Bronco. Not sure how that works exactly. The heart of the story is the father Ian never met. He misses him even more on his 16th birthday when he conveniently runs into an old elf friend of his dad. He takes it as a sign to be more fearless in high school, but he fails to even invite friendly classmates to his party. So Ian instead sadly listens and responds to an old recording of his father.
I know Onward means well with its emotional message, but the first act has way too much of it. I really do wish Pixar would stop prioritizing sadness over joy. Not to mention every random creature being extra friendly. Fortunately the comedy and emotion gets more balanced over time. In order to make Ian feel better, Laurel gives Ian & Barley their father’s staff. Which Barley quickly identifies as a wizard’s staff. It comes with a Phoenix gem and “Visitation spell” that will allow their father to come back to life for just one day. Kinda creepy, but worth the risk. When Barely fails to perform the spell, Ian turns out to be the worthy one. Only the gem shatters before it can finish materializing him. Leaving their dad as just a pair of legs. It’s beyond bizarre, but they somehow manage to make that work. With their dad set to disappear in 24 hours unless they find a second Phoenix gem.
Thus Barely initiates a glorious quest with Ian and their torsoless dad in Guinevere. Leaving their confused mom to track them down using clues they left behind. Along the way, Barley tries to teach Ian a variety of spells like levitation, which requires him to believe in himself. Ian also gives their dad a body and props him up à la Weekend at Bernie’s. The first perilous destination is the tavern of the mighty quest sending Manticore. A beast with lion body, bat wings, and scorpion tail that I’m frankly not familiar with. Although it looks dark and dangerous on the outside, the tavern is really just a family restaurant. While Corey is now more concerned with business than adventure. Octavia Spencer has the right range for either personality trait. Ian & Barley find her map which is also a children’s placemat. Ian somehow convinces Corey to trash her restaurant using her fire breath. The only good to come out of it is Ian successfully levitating and Barley making off with the placemat.
As the brothers make their way to Raven’s Point, their mother finds the Manticore. They become gal pals as she remembers a curse that will be unleashed unless they find her magic sword. Which happens to be in a goblin’s mysterious pawn shop. Meanwhile, Ian accidentally shrinks Barley with a failed growing spell. It’s at this point the humor really gets good. Since they encounter tough sprite bikers at a gas station. Like Corey, they don’t fly due to modern convenience. The sprites chase after them as Ian faces his fear of driving on the highway (with a Pizza Planet truck). When the spell wears off, Ian performs a truth induced disguise spell in order to trick two cops into thinking they’re Officer Bronco. The faun and lesbian cyclops cops get randomly personal and force Ian to lie about Barley being a screw up. It messes things up between them at first, but it’s nothing a goofy dance with their dad’s legs won’t fix. They eventually make it to Raven’s Point with Bronco hot on their trail.
In order to cross a bottomless pit, Ian must perform a spell that creates an invisible bridge of belief. It’s heartstopping, but they make it across, evade Bronco in Guinevere, and reach a dead end. When Ian fails to perform the advanced lightning spell, Barley sacrifices his majestic van. Then they find a perilous gauntlet fraught with many dangers beneath. But first they travel on a Cheeto puff where they have a heart to heart about their dad. Then they face booby traps, flooding water, and a particular cube. SPOILER ALERT! The end of the journey leads them right back to where they started. Ian denounces Barley with no time left to see their dad. Barely desperately searches for the gem and finds it at the same construction sight he was protecting. This would be the second construction worker John Ratzenberger voiced, but the first cyclops.
As Ian looks over his list, he realizes Barley has been their for him all along. It’s a tear worthy moment that I could more than relate to. Since my older brother does the same. The gem unleashes the curse which turns out to be a dragon made up of objects from the high school. It’s a worthy last minute villain that puts up an exciting fight. Laurel arrives atop the Manticore and they bravely fight off the beast. Although the entire movie was leading to it, Ian decides Barely is the one who should say goodbye to their dad. Ian becomes a confident wizard who masters every spell to slay the dragon. Their father arrives at a distance and passes a heartfelt hug onto his son. Something Barley gives to Ian. That’s when I officially cried. In the end, Barley wound up convincing every mythical creature to embrace their strengths and Ian learned to be bold. The world building is magical, the music is majestic, and the message is sweet. It’s not likely to become a Pixar classic, but tis a fair adventure for modern audiences. Onward goes “Upward and onward to greater glory.”