“Long ago, the world was full of wonder. It was adventurous, exciting and best of all, there was magic. And that magic helped all in need. But it wasn’t easy to master. And so the world found a simpler way to get by. Over time, magic faded away….”
Disney/Pixar’s Onward is set in this world that used to be so full of wonder, adventure, magic. But technology made it easier to get by without the magic, so things settled into a ho-hum suburban lifestyle. The world is still filled with magical creatures—elves, pixies, unicorns, mermaids, cyclopes, centaurs, fauns, manticores, dragons—but because they haven’t been in touch with the magical nature of the world, all those gifts have become dormant.
It is in this fantasy world that elf Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) is turning 16. Ian is shy, but wishes he could be bold. He feels a bit empty because he never knew his father. His older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) has three memories of their father and though they are rather banal, because of their rarity, both brothers venerate those memories. Barley is as boisterous and outgoing as Ian is reserved and quiet.
Because it’s Ian’s birthday, their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives the two boys a gift from their father meant for when they are both over 16. It is a magical staff with a note that includes a spell to allow him to come back for one day so he can see how they’ve grown up. Barley can’t make it work. But when Ian picks up the staff, it is obvious that he is the one with the magical gifts. When the spell goes awry part way through, leaving Dad materialized only up to his waist, the boys must set out on a quest to find another magical crystal so they can complete the spell before the day is over.
The odd-couple nature of the brothers is the engine that drives the story. Ian is quiet and timid. He has no idea of what magic is or how to make it work. Barley has no fear (even when he should). But he is a veteran Dungeons and Dragons player who believes that the game reflects the real history of the world. He knows spells, but he must encourage Ian to use them when needed. As they try to complete the quest, the brothers learn about each other and themselves. They find a way through their common grief. They also begin to show that the world is full of magic, if only the world will connect with it.
As I look back at previous Pixar films, I think of films that rely on stories that touch the viewers. Onward touches us, but not to the same extent of other Pixar films. That may be due to the frenetic pace of the brothers’ journey. It feels more like an action movie than some of the more thoughtful nature of past films. Because of the pace, there is little time to appreciate the comedy involved. There are some funny spots, but they blow by way too fast.
In the end, we may see this as a film about faith. Barley is a man who believes and trusts in the magic of the world. Even though others don’t see that magic, for Barley it is waiting to be rediscovered. Through the brothers’ journey, that forgotten nature of the world becomes visible yet again, changing not only Ian and Barley, but everyone who sees what they have done—and come to believe as well.
Onward casts its spell in theatres on Friday, March 6th, 2020.
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios