Pixar’s newest movie Onward is an amazing watch for lovers of fantasy and DnD and it offers a heartfelt message of brotherhood discovering who you are
Released March 6th 2020, Onward follows the story of Ian and Barely, two elfen brothers in a world where magic has faded away and everything is modernized. On his 16th birthday, Ian and Barely receive a magic staff from their late father. Along with the staff is a spell that will bring back their father for 24 hours. After accidentally casting the spell, Ian brings back his father, but only his legs. Not only that, but the gem needed to perform the spell shatters! With only 24 hours to complete the spell and see their father, Ian and Barely embark on an epic quest to find another gem and see their father before time runs out.
Ian (played by Tom Holland) is a young elf who just turned 16. Ian is an adorably loveable shy kid. A nervous kid with no friends, who’s awkward and has no confidence. Ian, unlike his older brother, has never known his father and has never had a father figure in his life. He hopes that on his quest he can find the phoenix stone and finally meet his dad.
Barley (played by Chris Pratt), Ian’s older brother, is the exact opposite of Ian. A loud, boisterous guy with a lot of energy. Barley loves fantasy, history and magic, and is a bit of a goof. Barely hopes to teach his brother the way of magic and get to see his dad one last time.
Then there’s Wilden, Ian and Barley’s father. Despite being a pair of legs for 99% of his part in the movie, he has a lot of personality. We see pictures and hear about him when he was alive but even as a pair of legs we can see what type of person he was.
Along with Barley and Ian you have a cast of supporting characters. Lauren, the boy’s mother, the fearsome manticore, and officer Broncho, Lauren’s boyfriend.
Pixar is known for its distinct and memorable characters and this movie is no different. All of the characters in this movie are loveable in their own way. From the lovably dorky Barley to the charming officer Bronco, to the literal pair of pants that follows our protagonists around the whole movie.
As you can probably tell from the title and poster alone, this movie has a distinctly fantasy element to it but with a clever twist. You see, magic exists in the world of Onward. At least, it used to. Advances in technology saw magic going out of style. After all, why learn a light spell when you can flip on a lightbulb? Or why fly on a pegasus when you have a car to take you place to place? I’m sure we’ve all imagined something like this at some point. But magic does still exist, as seen by the working staff Ian and Barley’s dad has. And Ian has a magic gift that allows him to use magic unlike his brother who tries and fails to cast the visitation spell at the start of the movie.
It also seems, along with the magic, that the great creatures of legends have also fallen from grace. Corry, the once fearsome Manticore warrior, is now the manager of a Chuck E Cheese esque establishment. Sprites, once magical flying creatures use bikes instead of their wings. Even the unicorns are shells of their former majestic selves. Magic is also disregarded by most people as a thing of the past. This is why Barley -who loves magic and the ways of old- isn’t taken seriously by most people.
This is by far the most interesting aspect of the movie as I’ve never seen any other movie or show subvert the fantasy trope the way Onward does. There is something interesting about seeing unicorns depicted as mangy racoon-like vermin that raid trash cans or the once mighty dragons being small dog-like pets. It’s a good example of Show-don’t-Tell in worldbuilding. We get to see the magical creatures in their fall from grace instead of just being told that they are no more. The subversion of the fantasy trope is done very well and the fantasy and modern elements meld perfectly.
The movie makes many much appreciated references to fantasy in pop culture, and here’s the craziest part: None of them feel out of place. Because magic was an important part of history in this world, it makes sense for characters to reference to popular fantasy tropes. The most prominent of these is Dungeons and Dragons with a similar game existing in the movie. Barley’s Quests of Yore book becomes an important item as it contains all of the spells Ian learns.
I must say that the world building in this movie is absolutely brilliant. With movies taking place in a SiFi or fantasy world, world building is key. It’s vital that the world the characters are in not only makes sense, but is also believed by the audience. Onward does a good job establishing a world and making it believable to the audience.
As you’d expect from every Pixar movie, the story has a family oriented message. However, there was a slight difference in how this message was told that surprised me. They didn’t have to do it this way, but they did. This part contains major spoilers so if you haven’t seen the movie turn back now.
Now, at the end of the movie we see Ian crossing out the things on his to do list. With barely even an hour left until sunset, he’ll never be able to do all he wanted with his dad. As he crosses out the items on his list, he comes to a realization. He has done all of the things on the list on his quest, only, it wasn’t with his father but with Barely. At this moment, Ian realizes that he never needed to know his father because he’s had his older brother his whole life.
If i’m being honest, this realization caught me off guard. When I went back and rewatched the movie, I saw that this theme of brotherhood had been there the whole time. Instead of being a quest to find his dad, Ian and Barley’s quest becomes one of self discovery and brotherhood. I loved watching Ian and Barley’s relationship grow. They learn to understand and appreciate each other’s strengths and weaknesses, especially Ian. It’s a theme throughout the movie that people think that Barley is a screw up, even Ian. Ian learns though that his brother’s obsession with fantasy and magic doesn’t make him weird or a screw up. In fact, it’s Barley’s expansive knowledge of magic and fantasy tropes that helps them complete the quest. They grow from each other and that’s something I absolutely love about this movie.
Onward has a beautiful sentiment about being grateful for those you have with you. Ian becomes so caught up in meeting his dad, who he’s never known, that he forsakes who’s been with him from the start. It would have been so easy for the writers to simply let Ian meet his dad and end the movie there, and that’s what I was expecting. But considering all that the brothers had been through up until that point, it would have been an unfitting end to the story. I’m glad the writers of Onward went with the message in the movie instead. It adds that last element to the movie that makes it a truly fulfilling, enjoyable watch.