“Put it in ‘o’ for ‘onward.’” The latest Disney/Pixar offering, the first original animated concept, i.e. not a sequel or remake since Coco (2017), certainly does zip and zoom. It also drowns in grief, and flows in the unseen bonds that help us weather loss. Dan Scanlon, whose previous directorial credits include Monsters University (2013), with Onward crafts a sweetly enchanted tale about the memories and legacies left behind and our adoration for the past, in lieu of the uncertain future.
Much like Monsters University, Onward knowingly takes place in a magical world, one with several references to The Lord of the Rings and the grail mythos, where mythical creatures are an accepted portion of the universe’s tapestry. Nevertheless, magic itself isn’t assumed. Instead, wizards and witches, once powerful and necessary in the past, are mere folklore in the face of this modern technological world. Even so, on this day, it is Ian Lightfoot’s (Tom Holland) 16th birthday. A nervous elf and outcast, Ian’s never known his father. He died before he was born. Every night, he longingly stares at his dad’s picture and plays a cassette over and over with a snippet of his voice. However, Ian isn’t alone. His older brother Barely (Chris Pratt) fiercely believes in magic, and often plays a Dungeons and Dragons-esque game based on real historical legends. Moreover, Ian also has his determined and thoughtful mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her campy cop boyfriend Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), a centaur.
On his 16th birthday, Ian and his brother are given a gift from their father, a magical staff with a spell. If read correctly, the incantation can bring their dad back for 24 hours. However, something goes terribly wrong. To right it, Ian and Barley must endure a quest to find a stone that’ll complete the spell and fully revive him before he leaves again.
Onward through Ian and Barley’s quest often examines the power of legacy in an array of fashions. For instance, their first stop finds them at the manticore’s inn. A fabled and powerful creature named Corey (Octavia Spencer), the manticore now runs the inn as a drab Chuck E. Cheese-type restaurant. Her once powerful legend is now reduced to a commodity. Ironically, such contrivances reminds one of Disney’s pursuit in using the heritage of their past hits like The Lion King and Aladdin by remaking them for greater profits, even while they exhibit less soul than their predecessors.
Nevertheless, legacies can also guide us. Both Ian and Barley are completely reliant on the past, Ian for its emotional tendons connecting to paternal love not gained, and for Barley as a comfort to dissuade his unexpressed fears. The brothers use the power of legend and folklore to chart their quest, often learning to trust each other’s strength: Ian’s magic and Barley’s knowledge. It’s a leap of fate throughout, one the film intimates through allusions to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). And throughout, the two communicate with their semi-physically present father, even though he can’t hear them.
Less of an obvious visual splendor, the animated film doesn’t feature any splashy expressions of Pixar’s technical advancements through any one scene. Instead, Onward easily glides on its talented voice actors and its score, which often makes allusions to Ennio Morricone’s highly expressive and resolute spaghetti westerns. Moreover, Holland reprises his archetype of misunderstood bashful teen with surprisingly extraordinary powers who gains greater confidence the more he harnesses his abilities, to great effect. Because with each magical spell Ian learns on his road trip with Barley, the more he learns about his courage. Louis-Dreyfus’ charm also exudes in the delightful yet unassailable mother Laurel. And Holland and Pratt, both MCU stalwarts, show great vocal chemistry as two brothers bonded together through family and tragedy.
Lighthearted and funny, one scene in particular witnesses Ian and Barley zooming through a cave’s river on a giant Cheetos puff, Onward morphs from standard Pixar faire to a heartfelt cry-a-thon by the final act. Losing a parent is never something you get over; their remains within you; and the memories of them in your mind become more cherished with each passing day. Onward specifically taps into a well of grief, of the ever-present emotional wound that’s slightly bound but never closed. And it does so until the tear drops run dry, only to dig for more. Which makes Onward far more a film for adults than Pixar’s ever done. So go to your local convenience store and break the bank on those napkins; they’re needed.