I lost my father in middle school, but it seems I had lost him long before that due to the debilitating nature of his illness (Multiple Sclerosis). His words became an indistinguishable mumble–neither familiar in its tone nor accent. His once beautiful writing became an illegible scrawl. His insistence on familial traditions faded away. Then he died, almost a stranger. Of course, I would love to see him again, even for a magical 24-hours. There’s so much I have to tell him.
The premise of Pixar’s latest animated feature, “Onward,” is about one such magical day, when two elvish lads have the opportunity to see their father one last time. Their father was a wizard; their mother, a warrior. But the younger of the two, Ian (Tom Holland), never knew his father. The older, Barley (Chris Pratt), has a scarce three memories (really four). They have photos yet their mom, Laurel Lightfoot (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), hasn’t told them much.
Pixar has created a community where the houses have a giant mushroom cap for a roof, elves are blue, cyclops aren’t eating people, but unicorns are eating garbage. The school’s mascot and Ian’s pet are dragons, but that doesn’t mean dragons won’t threaten our two main characters are they search for the last moment with their father.
That’s partially because their father was, besides being an accountant, into the old ways. The world has let sloth rob the elves, fairies, manticores and centaurs of their non-human skills. Instead, they settle for gas-lit stoves over magic and driving gas-powered vehicles over flying and running with the wind in their hair. Those with the gift for wizardry may not realize they have the gift. Their father did.
Barley is heavily invested in a Dungeons and Dragons type of game, but he insists these are based on old traditions. On Ian’s 16th birthday, their mother presents them with a sorcerer’s staff, a phoenix gem and instructions. Barley attempts to cast the spell but it doesn’t work. Disappointed, Laurel leaves to get Ian’s birthday cake and Barley leaves to suppress his disappointment, but once alone, Ian attempts to spell on his own and it works, but only partially, one guesses, because as we learn, magic requires faith. Ian doesn’t believe and lives a fearful life. The spell disintegrates the phoenix gemstone but only produces the bottom half of their father.
In Barley’s beaten up van, Guinevere, they take off to find another phoenix gemstone by visiting the manticore. Ian is already building up a list of things he wants to do with his father while the more impetuous Barley is going with his gut, headlong into adventure, serving as Ian’s guide.
This is a story about a quest and the reasons for the quest. It’s a story about two brothers, one raising the other and now serving as a walking encyclopedia into the old ways of wizardry, magical hazards and mythical beings.
I wish my siblings and I had been as supportive of each other as we grew up fatherless. I can see how his death shaped us all just as Barley will later admit to Ian.
As someone who has searched for a father in so many ways since the death of my own father, it’s no surprise that the film left me in tears and that’s despite Pixar choosing not to make its fairies pretty, or its elves sexy or cute. The unicorns aren’t majestic or beautiful, they are a bit goofy, as are the dragons. The two dragons in “Onward” won’t fuel any nightmares.
I’m not sure if this approach will help sell toys like Pixar’s Toy Story or Cars films. “Onward” has a stronger story and emotional appeal than “The Good Dinosaur” which only had good moments, notably not around its main characters. The adventures here are fantastical, but smaller than “The Incredibles.” There’s a sweet intimacy similar to “Coco,” but no musical appeal. There isn’t anything deeply psychological like in “Inside Out,” but like “Inside Out,” “Onward” deals with an emotional event. Although the death of a parent is more impactful than a move, “Onward” focuses on the brother who doesn’t know what he missed and isn’t sure what he longs for instead of the brother who remembers the father’s presence and absence. Whether or not there is a potential for sequels, is also questionable.
[For fans of 4DX, the water spray and wind makes this fun and pet lovers will get a warmer feeling for the every lurking presence of the pet dragon.]
“Onward” takes us on an adventure and asks us to consider taking one ourselves, if only by trying something new on our birthdays. I’ve always tried and I hope you consider trying, too, even if it’s only a new flavor of ice cream or a new cuisine. “Onward” opens 6 March 2020, but has special screenings on 29 February 2020.