Regardless of Pixar’s impact on the animation industry, and how it rewrote the rulebook on over 50 years of animated storytelling in the West, there is no denying that Pixar has set the bar with its strong line-up of touching, family-friendly feel-good movies that are based on some incredible premises, from the mental study that is Inside Out, the cultural shaping of the Mexico’s most popular holiday in Coco, along with strong franchises including Toy Story and Cars.
There have been some hiccups (The Good Dinosaur) but Pixar certainly dominated the emotional aspect of movie making, and its latest adventure, Onward, certainly fits right into Pixar’s library of fantastical storytelling, with its touching, even if somewhat predictable plot, of two brothers embarking on a quest to get to spend one more day with their deceased dad.
Onward is set in a suburban fantasy world where magic and majestic flying unicorns exists, but used to be dominant – only technology took over and soon, everyone found no need for magic or the fantastic. We follow young highschooler Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), who on his sixteenth birthday, receives a magical staff from his mom who tells him that it is a gift from his late father. The staff comes with a phoenix gem and an incantation that allows Ian and his brother Barley (Chris Pratt) to summon their dad back into the living, for one day.
Having never known his dad, Ian is bent on seeing his father but of course, the spell goes awry and their dad gets summoned halfway, with just the lower half of his body. That’s right, they did manage to summon their dad back, but only from his waist down. Which does help to give rise to some of the humour in the movie, as Ian helps to put together a makeshift body top for his dad which flops around much like how a potato sack filled with cotton would.
Barley, being an avid fan of the history and the historically accurate role-playing game Adventures of Yore (which is directly inspired by Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons), immediately recognises that they should embark on an adventure to procure another rare and extremely hard to find phoenix gem, and summon the other half of their dad back before the 24-hour timer runs out.
And so we follow both the quiet but determined Ian and the loud and goofy Barley as they set out on their journey.
Over the course of the movie, we can gradually see how the shy, nervous Ian slowly grows into his own skin and becomes a lot more self-assured and confident as the desire to see his father strips him of his fear and uncertainty in life. Despite being the one gifted with magical powers, Ian has to constantly rely on Barley, with his rich knowledge of magic from long ago, for advice on how to cast spells. Through it, Ian learns the need to believe more in himself. It is a plot device we’ve seen a dozen times in a number of other movies, but what sets Onward apart from many others is the brotherly bond Ian and Barley shares, despite the obvious differences in attitudes and outlook they both share.
From the very start, audiences see Barley as someone that is very outspoken about the love and support he has for his little brother – fetching him from school in his trusty (but decrepit) van Gwyniver, despite the embarrassment felt by Ian, following his brother on the quest for a phoenix gem so that Ian can see his dad for the first time, and imparting everything he knew about casting spells (through an Adventure of Yore guidebook) to his not-quite wizardly little brother.
Which makes the falling out they have in the film’s second act a little painful to watch – we have the idealistic Ian and the playful Barley realising that the siblings have fundamentally different approaches to life, and one cannot possibly match the other. This is a reflection of many sibling relationships and a condition worth exploring but sadly, the conflict lasted for less than 10 minutes and was quickly resolved in lieu of plot progression. It would have perhaps helped to shape the brothers’ personalities and their relationship a little more if the movie delved into their conflict and emotions more from the start, and not handwave it away with a quick goofy dance routine from their dad.
But given that this is a movie with fixed acts and a conclusion, the jump towards a reasonable conclusion has to occur and the Pixar perspective, of emotional revelation and understaning appears in the final moments when Ian learns of Barley’s own loss of never being able to say goodby to their father. For the majority of the movie, Ian’s motivation was to see his dad once again, having never met the guy before he passed away due to an undisclosed illness. He had plans to play catch with his dad, spend time having a heart to heart talk with him and get the man to teach him driving – then the movie decides to evolve the father and son relationship, and into the elder sibling one.
Following another argument between the brothers which has Ian leaving in a huff, he quickly comes to the realisation that though he has never had a dad, he’s had a great brother in Barley. If you’ve seen the trailers, or sensed there the story is approaching from, this eventuality was well orchestrated from the start, but the stakes were only raised towards the end. Perhaps the movie could have taken the time to develop the brother’s relationship a little more, but as it stands, there is more that Ian has picked up throughout the course of the movie, and there were sacrifices in the narrative that had to be done. The bottom line is, this is as much a movie about Barley, as it is about Ian.
Aside from Ian and Barley, Onward also spends quite some time on Laurel Lightfoot (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), mother of Ian and Barley, and Corey (the ever spectacular Octavia Spencer), a manticore who the brothers first go to for help on their quest for the phoenix gem.
It is amusing to see how the once-mighty manticore and her tavern changed into a family-friendly restaurant over time thanks to capitalism and the need to keep her “investors” appeased. It was only after Ian gave her a speech on staying true to who she was that she strips off her demure persona and lets her mane fly free. Laurel also deserves special mention for taking the initiative to go after her boys right after she discovered them gone. If it weren’t for her, the climactic battle at the end would have gone pretty south we reckon.
In the end, much like any popular Disney movie, Onward is all about the love siblings have for one another. Though it does disappoint a little on the emotional front, it is still very much a fun movie to watch with the family.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
Onward’s setting and story might be based on fantasy and wild adventure, but the underlying teaching from the movie, about recognising what you have rather than what you’ve lost, is a universal lesson that deserves to be told again and again.
Story - 8/10
Direction - 7.5/10
Characterisation - 8.5/10
Geek Satisfaction - 8.5/10