Predictable but emotionally moving, Pixar’s Onward inspires a new sense of wonder
It can be particularly difficult to review the films you saw as a kid. The movies whose formative impressions were subsequently reinforced by your choice to diligently watch their DVD forty more times; the ones that began to imprint themselves just beneath the threshold of consciousness; the ones that you would – without realizing – find yourself living inside; the ones whose worlds were fully present beyond the edges of their frames, as if you could enter the screen and turn your head to take a look. There’s a heightened susceptibility at that age to the effects of cinema, an uncomplicated willingness to inhabit a different reality, the act of allowing yourself to be somewhere else without conscious effort. It’s an experience that great kids films, like the best of Studio Ghibli and Pixar, elicit even in their adult audiences.
Onward is not among the ranks of Pixar’s best — the film itself makes you unusually conscious of this fact. It takes place in a fantasy world without humans, but with a myriad of stand-ins: elves, centaurs, goblins, pixies, cyclops, trolls, and a manticore chief among them. Magic, once prevalent with wizards and quests galore, was difficult to master, and the population eventually opted for the ease of electricity and increasing conveniences offered by modern technological and industrial development. By the present day, everything fantastical has willfully assimilated into (sub)urban norm-core. Magic isn’t present anymore, the cultural consciousness of its history successfully commodified into kitsch.
Our protagonist is Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), a nebbish, nice elvish kid, whose crippling self-doubt leaves him isolated from everyone but his family, consisting of his understanding, single mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt). Barley is a slacker obsessed with an analog for Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) that he insists is “historically accurate,” and is currently in the midst of what their mom refers to as “the longest gap year.” He’s straight out of the eighties movie guidebook entry for older siblings, driving around in a decaled, fixer-upper of a van he’s named Guinevere, its glove box stuffed with tickets for parking violations, blasting cheesy power metal from his hand-labeled cassette collection. Their father, who Barley only has three memories of, died of a non-magical illness before Ian was born, resulting in Ian’s father’s absence and Barley’s presence having an outsized impact on Ian’s life. At the close of a familiarly dispiriting sixteenth birthday, Ian’s mom reveals a gift their father had been saving for when Ian and his brother both reached that age. It’s a wizard’s staff, a magical gem, and a spell that, when cast, will let their father return to the world for twenty-four hours to meet them. While Barley’s D&D knowledge is entirely applicable, it turns out to be Ian who is endowed with the necessary affinity for using magic (towards which Barley reacts with nothing but sincere excitement and encouragement). The spell ends up overwhelming Ian, who succeeds only in bringing back his father from the belt down. Able to partially communicate with him by deliberately tapping his feet, the brothers set out with their dad’s tan slacks on a quest to find another magical gem and restore their dad’s top half within their twenty-four hour time limit.
However fantastical its underpinnings, their quest still has to negotiate the realities of the modern world. Considerations include whether or not to use the expressway or find a nearby gas station. The location of the map to the magical gem — gleaned from Barley’s Magic: The Gathering-like card collection — is a once nefarious tavern, converted by its minacious owner into a tacky theme restaurant after the Internal Revenue Service started giving her trouble. As their journey progresses, Ian, with the help of Barley, gradually develops his ability to use magic, and, therefore, grows his trust in himself more generally.
The stark predictability of the film’s narrative structure (you’ll find yourself telegraphing the introduction of new character beats exactly) accentuates how the balance of the film’s story and world is heavily tipped in favor of mundanity. Watching it, the film’s central thematic conceit, of finding a space for re-encountering the magic amidst the ordinary and procedural, takes on a meta-textual aspect. You’ll find yourself wishing you encountered it as a kid, without all the barriers to basic wonderment put up by the intervening years of your life; you’ll find yourself longing for the sense of discovery the film would’ve once been capable of eliciting in your younger self. That distance from the magic is felt more keenly than in the rest of the studio’s B-tier to which Onward belongs, aware as you always are of the limits to the film’s capacity to transport you. It’s a sensation that is surprisingly complemented by the film’s core fraternal relationship — handled with the studio’s trademark emotional deftness. Built up naturally, with sensitivity and considerable sophistication over the course of the film, its payoff brought me to the verge of tearing up three separate times. That ultimate resonance, evincing a level of respect for its characters not found in most films aimed at adults, is meaningfully bittersweet, a feeling capable, still, of bridging that distance the audience feels from the magic of Pixar.