Unlike many previous Pixar animated features, ‘Onward’ appears underwhelming in concept. The trailer doesn’t quite excite like the whimsical fancy of ‘Up’ or the grand scope of ‘Zootopia.’ It doesn’t thrill like ‘The Incredibles’ or ‘Monsters Inc.’ It doesn’t quite grab the imagination like ‘Inside Out’ or ‘Toy Story.’
It’s fantasy-meets-modern setting seems a little simple and straightforward and lacking of anything that inspires true wonder like the previous films’ trailers. The premise of a fantasy world filled with elves, pixies, centaurs, and manticores but living in a modern world without magic just seems a little close to Harry Potter territory.
We kind of expect more from Pixar.
But that was my mistake. I was resistant at the beginning as ‘Onward’ opens with narration much-like the beginning of a fairy tale about a world filled with magic and adventure. But, in this world, magic is not an easy thing to learn and master and science has paved the way to technology that has made magic all but unnecessary and forgotten.
And the world of ‘Onward’ has progressed much like our own, except it is inhabited by once proud and magical creatures. And this is where the world gets really, really rich because — while the story follows the brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot as they are given a gift on Ian’s birthday that sets them on a quest to see their father who has passed away (and Ian has never met) — the film manages to make pointed statements at how our current society has relied too much on technology that we’ve lost our own sense of wonder and magic.
Creatures with wings have forgotten how to fly because there are cars and planes now. Great and powerful beasts have lost their majesty and their sense of self, trying to live in the world of commerce and respectability. In ‘Onward,’ the world has lost its magic and sense of adventure but when taken as a symbolism of our own world, it’s referring to our inability to create anything new and to fight monsters and foes in front of us because we’ve gotten so comfortable.
And these themes on modern life becomes the soul of Ian’s and Barley’s journey to use a wizard’s staff that their father left them to cast a spell that would allow them to see him for just one day. While Barley has grown up obsessed with the world’s history and games that relish in the world of magic and lore, he’s become an activist fighting for keeping heritage sites that are important monuments to the past. On the other hand, Ian is a young man who is afraid of everything.
As the two go on their quest, with their wonderfully supportive mother on their trail, what we bear witness to is a fully-formed relationship between the two brothers and their feelings about their father and what they hope to achieve with the one day they get to spend with him.
Anybody who grew up with siblings will really enjoy the complex dynamic of Ian and Barley and the clever ways with which director Dan Scanlon and screenwriters Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin push these two characters to their limits and beyond it.
And like any Pixar movie, the film is filled with funny moments, wonderful set pieces, and very heartwarming moments that I even caught myself crying at some point only because it just reminded me so much of my own relationships with my siblings and my parents.
Like every other Pixar movie, ‘Onward’ manages to juggle social commentary with wonderful character work that rivals any live action movie today. It’s so smart and fun and tight in its conceptualization and execution that I feel really embarrassed for not trusting and believing in Pixar at the get-go.
It has all the trappings of a really good Pixar animated feature but with a clear reminder to all of us living today that we shouldn’t forget our past, and we shouldn’t be afraid to go on our own quests. The true enemy here is being too comfortable that we’ve forgotten who we are and we stop ourselves from the best that we can be.
'Onward' opens in cinemas nationwide this Wednesday, March 4, 2020. Find showtimes for 'Onward' and book your tickets in advance!