Light on plot, the story’s still got legs… and a whole lot of heart.
Matt Izzo – Though best known for anthropomorphic just-about-anything, Pixar Animation Studios has introduced us to some dynamic and relatable human characters in its 25 years of feature films. But for all the smiles, laughs, and tears that Toy Story, Inside Out, and Coco have rained upon the world, it’s Pixar’s latest installment, Onward – a story about two elf brothers in the suburban fantasy town New Mushroomton – that best demonstrates just how good Pixar is at telling stories about what it means to be human.
In fact, Ian and Barley Lightfoot (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, respectively) are human to a fault. The whole town is – but this wasn’t always the case. The magic that once defined this world was abandoned in favor of the ease and efficiency of now commonplace inventions. Apparently, even wizards would trade in their staffs for the latest iPhone. Monuments to the town’s past are being eradicated; mythical characters, once-powerful neighbors, have been reduced to mascots. If it weren’t for mushroom-shaped houses and feral unicorns eating trash on the streets, this town could easily be mistaken for New Jersey. But Ian and Barley want more.
It’s Ian’s 16th birthday, and a celebration like this would have once been marked by an elaborate quest. Now, it’s the ordinary – birthday cakes and forced parties. Ian aspires to be more like his dad, who passed away before he was born. Older brother Barley is nostalgic for the magic that once was – even if the only way to recreate it is by playing Quests of Yore (a meta fantasy role-playing game supposedly based on their previous way of life). Finally, both Lightfoots are old enough to receive a special gift left behind by their father – a wizard staff, along with a spell that brings him back for 24 hours. When things go sideways and the brothers are left with only the bottom half of their dad, they must go on a birthday quest for the ages in order to finish the spell. And now the story’s got legs.
From the onset, this mythical setting has a surprising sense of familiarity. Intentional parallels to human society aside, the mythology of Onward is recognizable, using existing creatures from our own folklore and clues from a fantasy card game that could very well be sold at Target. As the road trip begins, the story turns inward, opting for consistent internal conflict over world-building at large. Director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), inspired by his relationship with his brother following their father’s death, cleverly uses the magic at his disposal to convey important messages about love, loss, and closure.
Onward undoubtedly achieves its Pixarian goal – and does so over and over again even before its tear-inducing finale. In point, you’ll remember how this movie made you feel. Imagine the bittersweet melancholy of “The First 10 Minutes of Up” sustaining itself for an entire film; that’s Onward, where every laugh comes with an understanding that the clock is ticking on the brothers’ last day with their dad. Human, elf, manticore – anyone who has suffered and grieved a personal loss, especially that of a parent – will be able to relate and root for Ian and Barley. Of course, Pixar doesn’t disappoint in its staples: beautiful animation, tight writing, and an enjoyable score composed by brothers Mychael and Jeff Danna (The Good Dinosaur). But what will sweep you off your feet is the film’s sentimental charm, the recognizable chemistry between the Spider-Man and Star-Lord actors, and knee-slapping visual gags courtesy of the man behind the legs, Wilden Lightfoot, whose whimsical, makeshift torso creates what can only be described as a Weekend at Bernie’s situation (and trust me, I looked for other ways to describe this).
Still, the movie could have benefited from a deeper dive into its own premise of the otherworldly. Whereas Coco led us into the land of the dead and Inside Out explored the inner workings of the mind, Onward’s most important events unfold within an ordinary home, at a gas station, and in grassy plains. The story is tight-knit, not meant to pull away from where we all know it’s going. Even Corey the Manticore (Octavia Spencer), enduring an identity crisis of her own, teams with mom Laurel Lightfoot (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) for a subplot that travels along much of the same “path of peril.” And so, a grandiose new world is quickly introduced and shrunken down to an intimate journey; a coup for Ian and Barley, who need space to find themselves and recreate the other half of their father, but an obstacle for a film that settles into a small scale adventure. This prevents the movie from becoming as instantly iconic as Monsters, Inc., which delved into its landscape of Monstropolis, and Disney’s Zootopia, which conceptualized an original type of civilization on a much grander scale.
Leaving most of its realm unexplored, Onward becomes Pixar’s quintessential road trip flick. As great as the destination is, how I wish we could’ve looked out the window a bit more during the journey itself – to enjoy more of the details, share some more laughs at the expense of unicorns, and say, “no, I’m not crying, something flew into my eye just then.” But alas, we merge onward.