Onward is the perfect mix of humor and heart. It’s a tale of legacy and rediscovering the magic which binds families together. For a movie that on the surface seems to be about elves going on a quest, Dan Scanlon’s latest project (he previously helmed Pixar’s Monsters University) is much more profound. The film asks how far you would go to ensure spending 24 hours with a departed loved one? What would it mean to have one last conversation with a grandparent or a father who was too young when he left this world? For Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), it would mean everything.
Onward‘s centers around the 16th birthday of Ian and a present their mother (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) was told to give the birthday boy and his brother on that day. Upon unwrapping the package, Ian reads a note stating that their father not only was into wizardry, but he provided them with a spell to bring their father back for one day. Barley is, of course, excited, but Ian is elated. See, his father died before his birth, and Ian never met the man. Filled with angst and a million questions, they attempt the spell, but there is a mishap. The gem used in the spell imploded and only allowed the boys to bring the lower half of their dad back. Now they must go on a quest to retrieve another gem to complete the process before dad’s 24 hours are up.
The animation in Onward, at times, was hypnotic. The bright and intricate color palette was mesmerizing, enhancing the film. The script by Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin masterfully weaves in some very relevant themes of societal complacency into this narrative where, in this mythical world, all of these magical creatures have become lazy due to technology. Why use their magic if they can Google it?
The dichotomy between Ian and Barley’s personalities is a crucial element of Onward. Ian’s shyness is due to not having a father figure in his life and Barley needs to be outgoing/positive because he felt the family needed those things after suffering tragedy at such an early age. Part of the magic this film creates is seeing the evolution of these two characters. While on the surface the quest is about bringing back their father but in reality it’s about finding out your true self.
Onward also does a tremendous job of depicting what most would classify as the “modern family”. Even though Ian and Barley’s mother still misses their father, she’s moved on to a new boyfriend, Officer Colt Bronco (voiced by Mel Rodriguez) and the film brilliantly depicts the balancing act these families go through. Bronco tries to get close with the two boys but not too close because he doesn’t want to come on too strong. Their mother respects their passion for bringing back Dad but I’m not sure necessarily understands it. Scanlon’s film will certainly strike a chord with many in the audience.
The voice work by Pratt, Holland, and Louis-Dreyfus is fantastic. Octavia Spencer steals every scene she’s in, voicing a half lion, half winged creature called a manticore who runs a once humble tavern that’s become a commercialized fast food restaurant. Her path crosses with Ian and Barley and ignites a spark in her that’s been dormant for many years.
Lena Waithe voices a female cop who pulls over Ian and Barley while they’re on their quest. During this interaction, she makes reference to her girlfriend in the slightest blink your one-eye and you’ll miss it manner. Some may laud it as a breakthrough moment as Waithe’s character is the first “openly” LGTBQ+ in the history of Pixar but it’s inflating a moment in the film that’s so insignificant that it distorts the truth of what occurred. One reference is hardly seems like progress but for kids seeing and hearing it in such a normal, passing nature it could just be the progress needed to move upward and onward.
Onward opens March 6 from Walt Disney Studios.