“Long ago, the world was full of wonder. It was adventurous, exciting, and best of all, there was magic!”
So begins Onward, the 22nd addition to Pixar’s impressive list of animated children’s films. Onward, featuring a talented voice cast that includes Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, and Octavia Spencer, follows two brothers who live in a fantasy world. However, this world isn’t quite like the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter fantasy worlds that we are used to; the setting of Onward is set in a much more modern context, where magic and spells have been overtaken by the convenience of modern technology, and unicorns are more like pesky raccoons than magnificent creatures. Fantastical beasts, from centaurs to trolls to elves, still live together in harmony, but the fact that they all wear clothes and work nine-to-five jobs makes this universe feel a lot closer to reality. The fantasy genre is something we have all gotten used to seeing in mainstream media, but Onward’s modern interpretation of it puts a fun spin on it that can be enjoyed by parents and children alike. Imagine Harry Potter, but if they used, like, guns. That would have certainly made the big battle against Voldemort a lot quicker and easier, but I digress.
The film follows two brothers, Ian (Holland) and Barley (Pratt) Lightfoot. Ian, the younger brother, is sweet but shy, and has trouble speaking up and making friends. You can see the same charming awkwardness in Ian that Tom Holland brings to many of his characters, such as Peter Parker. Holland really excels in this role, perhaps because he’s already really good at portraying awkward teens. Barley, on the other hand, is his younger brother’s polar opposite; he is loud, full of energy, and doesn’t think before he acts. He is also heavily involved in the lore of a role-playing game (it’s basically D&D), and knows everything there is to know about magic, spells, quests, and the like. He longs for something exciting to happen in his average, suburban life in the town of New Mushroom.
The driving force behind the plot of this film is the death of Ian and Barley’s father, Wilden (aka Will). Wilden passed away from an illness shortly after Ian was born, leaving his wife and two sons behind. Ian, having no memories of his father, longs to meet him and have some sort of father figure in his life, who can guide him through all of the struggles of being a teen. The boys’ mother, Laurel (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus), has a centaur cop boyfriend named Colt, but he is little help since the boys are not his biggest fan.
On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, Laurel reveals that their father left them a gift, only to be opened after both boys had turned sixteen. They find a wooden wizard staff, a phoenix gem that is used for magic, and a spell, which is supposed to bring their father back for one day. After many failed attempts by Barley to cast the spell, the timid Ian gives it a try, and much to their surprise, it works. However, something goes terribly wrong as the spell is being cast. The gem explodes halfway through, leaving them with only the recovered bottom half of their father. Yup, Wilden is back as nothing more than two legs, accompanied by a pair of pants and shoes.
As you would expect, the boys cannot interact much with a pair of legs. Determined to bring back the other half of their father and spend time with him, the boys set off on a quest to find another phoenix gem. Travelling in Barley’s beat up van, affectionately named Guinevere, they encounter everything from a monstrous Manticore (who has turned a little soft in the modern age), to a biker gang of pixies, to a squadron of cops chasing after them. With 24 hours on the clock to bring their father back before he disappears forever, the boys embark on a thrilling adventure together. Ian hones his magic skills along the way, leading to a growth in his self confidence, as well as assisting him in all manners of battle.
While the boys’ quest itself is action-packed and entertaining, the real magic of the Pixar touch is incorporated into their brotherly relationship, as well as their differing relationships with their father. While Onward may be an epic quest adventure story at its core, the touching elements of families, loyalty, and trust is what really makes this a great film. We see strong character development throughout for both Ian and Barley, and the fun banter that they exchange really makes it feel like Holland and Pratt are brothers in real life. And, like most Pixar movies, Onward will make you cry. Like, a lot. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started watching this movie, but by the end of it, I was fully devoted to the characters and their mission.
Despite being another excellent Pixar film, unfortunately Onward was swept under the rug due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was released in theaters on March 6, 2020, and was successful at the box office until the pandemic caused movie theaters to close all around the world. This closure caused some financial shortcomings for the film, and even when it was released on Disney+ several weeks later, the hype had already died down. I saw very little buildup for the film on social media outlets, and did not see much discussion about how good it is. While the circumstances obviously cannot be helped, I feel like Onward deserved a lot more praise for accomplishing Pixar’s mission of delivering a touching, entertaining story to Disney fans everywhere.
Although Onward was an incredible movie in my opinion, it did have one major drawback. Prior to the film’s release, Disney advertised extensively that Onward was going to be the first Disney movie to feature an “openly gay character.” An announcement as big and important as this drew a lot of excitement from audiences, letting us believe that Disney was starting to pave the way for better inclusion and diversity. However, much to our disappointment, this “openly gay character” was featured in roughly five or less minutes of the film.
At one point along their quest, Ian and Barley are pulled over by two female police officers, a cyclops (Lena Waithe) and a faun (Ali Wong). Using a disguise spell, the brothers pretend to be Colt, their mom’s centaur boyfriend. They strike up a conversation about how “step” kids can be difficult, and the cyclops cop agrees, briefly mentioning “my girlfriend’s daughter…”
Yup, that’s it. One singular, measly little line about being gay: that’s all we get. Chances are, most children who watched this movie didn’t even catch that part, and the homophobic parents that did probably didn’t do much more than raise a skeptical eyebrow. I have to say, Disney messed up with that announcement. If your “openly gay character” has five minutes of screen time (and is also unfortunately a cop), then does it really count??
So there you have it. Onward is an amazing, heartwarming, and beautifully animated movie and definitely worth a watch for all ages, but you can’t deny that one major advertising misstep by Disney. Clearly, the company has a long way to go when it comes to actively including minorities and underrepresented groups in their stories and movies. However, you shouldn’t let that deter you from watching what is otherwise an entertaining and wonderful film. In the meantime, I’ll be waiting for the Mulan live action remake to finally be available for free on Disney’s streaming platform.