by Symeon J. Thompson
It was a time of wonder, of adventure and heroism, of quests and great feats. It was a time long ago, a time that never really existed – or did it? Is it perhaps a time that exists in a special way, a way that can be accessed in the here and now? Pixar’s latest feature Onward is about just such a world, a fantasy world that has forgotten the magic at its core.
Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is a teenage elf whose father Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer) died shortly before he was born, leaving him to be raised by his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and older brother Barley (Chris Pratt). Ian is shy and lacking in confidence, mourning the father he never knew. His brother is rambunctious and wild, obsessed with fantasy roleplaying and the magical history of the land in which they live.
For the world of the Lightfoots is one of fantastical and magical creatures that have forgotten their magic, preferring the convenience and reliability of technology over the arcane arts. It is a world where unicorns are feral pests and pixies ride motorbikes.
On Ian’s 16th birthday Laurel gives Ian and Barley a gift from their father – a wizard’s staff and spell. It seems Wilden was into magic in his spare time and he wrote a visitation spell to allow him to see his boys for one day when they were grown up.
Barley tries but fails to perform the spell. But, when Ian tries later, he succeeds. However, the spell fails halfway through, leaving their father as a pair of legs. The boys realise that if they find another magical phoenix gem, they will be able to complete the spell and bring their father back. So, they set off on a quest to find the gem and meet the father they barely knew, all before the setting of the sun.
While Onward may not be in the top echelon of Pixar films, it is still a moving and expertly produced experience about love, loss and growth. The fantasy world is realised in such a way as to be completely familiar, both in terms of its relation to everyday suburbia and in its connection to the ideas common to magical adventure stories.
The characters are recognisable and have a realism that allows them to exist as characters and as types. They reflect both people we recognise – perhaps in our own selves – and people we wish to be.
At a fundamental level the story is about a boy’s desire to connect with his father, but it is also explicitly about the desire to connect with one’s patrimony, to return to the traditions of the past without giving up on the present – or the future.
This is not nostalgia for a past Golden Age, but a conscious effort to bring the best of an imagined past into the present. It is about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves that give our lives the meaning to truly live.
How do we narrate our own lives? Are we heroes or victims? Do we acknowledge our need to do better or do we justify ourselves so we have no need to change or grow? Are we so focused on ourselves we forget we are not alone?
Both Barley and Ian are running from themselves, just in different directions, but it is in how they are running that they find their greatest strengths. Barley’s bravado is as much an escape from the pain as anything else. His gaming and ignoring of the everyday is him running from the pain of his loss, but it gives him an appreciation of the grandeur of the world, a grandeur others have forgotten – and the generosity to be there for others. Ian’s anxiety about the unknown leads to an intensity that allows him to master his magic.
The boys move from being trapped by their past to tapping into it to craft their future. Their memories, their history, their imaginings, all these things combine with their unique gifts to fuel them on the great quest, the great adventure that is life itself. An adventure we too share, and one where we must go ever Onward!
Onward is streaming on Dysney+.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).