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Onward is a Hearty Romp of Feels and Fantasy

Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar

In what has become a signature term and evolving metric for this writer, the “Pixar Punch” remains more undefeated than any boxer. For new readers of mine, it is, to quote my review of the non-Pixar short film Borrowed Time, the animation studio’s “uncanny ability to absolutely destroy our hearts with raw and simple emotionality in perfectly calculated amounts and moments.” On the surface, Onward is a silly quest movie for the tabletop gamer demo that has been cast into a March abyss instead of gleaming in Pixar’s annual mid-June tentpole throne. In actuality, this funnybone-slaying riot gives way to the kind of heart-rending climax that proves the Pixar Punch keeps manifesting itself in more and more unexpected places. 

The bardic prologue narration and imagery details an old land of myth and magic which rapidly metamorphosed with the advent of pragmatic science, invention, and technology. What was astonishing, virtuous, and helpful has faded in relevance and memory for most. Akin to Zootopia, an Earth-like suburbia is now the less-bestial stomping grounds for civilized elves, unicorns, mermaids, cyclops, fauns, pixies, centaurs, and more. 

One residential family of this realm are the Lightfoots. For years, Laurel Lightfoot (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) has raised two boys alone after the death of her husband Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer of Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made). Her worry-wort youngest son Ian (Tom Holland) is turning 16 and trying to figure out a place of value in his social circles. His embarrassing and inseparable-like-gum-on-the-bottom-of-your-shoe older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) is a van-ramblin’ and unemployed manchild who fashions himself as a history buff due to his adoring participation with and love for the role-playing “Quests of Lore” game.   

Barley wildly drives his can with Ian in the passenger seat
Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar

We have two young men who have grown up without a father from a young age and the difficulties show. One walks with overwhelming fear and the other doesn’t feel fear. Fortunately, and unlike the Disney trope of overplaying orphan stories, their mother has done a superb job of maintaining a house of love. If at any point you feel this story setup is too specific, convenient, or manipulative, seek out director Dan Scanlon’s true story behind this movie and either unsquint or unroll your eyes.

Barley tries to concur a spell with his father's staff in front of his brother Ian and mother Laurel
Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Lamentation turns into opportunity when Laurel uncovers a genuine magician’s staff, a special gift from Wilden saved for when both boys turned at least 16 years old. Wrapped with that robust rod are special instructions for an incantation that will bring their father back to life one-time-only for 24 hours. In all his geekdom, Barley cannot conjure even a twinkle of magic. It is Ian who displays the latent potential power to brandish ancient sorcery. 

Humorously, the untamed spell only constructs Wilden’s body from the waist down. With a ticking clock marching towards the next sunset, Ian and Barley lug their dad’s blind legs around and set out to find another crystal to power the staff and complete the temporary rebirth. Gusto, guitar riffs, gasoline, and a spirited score from Oscar winner Mychael Danna and his brother Jeff send these brothers (and later their mom) on a merry chase.

Barley and Ian dance with their father's lower body outside
Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Quests can be with or without adventure. Unquestionably, “with” always beats “without.” This wouldn’t be a proper escapade without paths of peril, a gauntlet of challenges, puzzles to solve, necessary items to seek, curses to avoid, experiences to be had, passions to ignite, and confidences to strengthen. Some of this forced fluff of urgency constitutes yet another manic tail-chasing narrative from Pixar. However, the originality and creativity of the world-building and, even better, the character-building make Onward’s romp worthwhile.

Fit to hang with the likes of Mike, Sully, Lightning McQueen, and Mater, Barley and Ian of Onward stand to become new entertainment emblems for the fathers and sons in the audiences. Winsome and exuberant humor is unleashed by the banter between Pratt and Holland and the heavily stylized community conundrums they find themselves in. The equally intrepid involvement of Laurel and Corey, a winged wingwoman of importance played uproariously by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, expands this movie’s success beyond merely the lads. There are inner warriors of all shapes, sizes, and genders to celebrate in this jovial family film.

Barley and Ian look upon the winged form of Corey the Manticore.
Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Time is the only real enemy in Onward. There is an importance of getting something right before it’s too late. This setting’s present era of innovation was built on top of a destroyed past of wonderment which the world now lacks. At the same time, there is a past versus future outlook reminder for teens and twenty-somethings. The message is to value any moment as it were the last chance you’ll have with whatever or whomever shares that same moment. Time could run out and leave those personal adventures and quests frustratingly and sadly unfinished.   

Right in time for the Pixar Punch, Onward elevates from fantasy tomfoolery into a touching story of siblings and parents. If you’re lucky enough to have a close sibling, you have shared a life with someone extremely special. You have witnessed their regrettable worst and their unforgettable best, and vice versa. Sharing also implies that you may have had to give up individual opportunities for each other. If you have ever lost a part of that kind of family unit, either temporarily or permanently, you feel that missing attachment with every fiber of your being.

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Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website "Every Movie Has a Lesson" and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication. He is also weekly movie trends columnist and occasional podcast contributor for the "Feelin' Film" podcast. As an middle school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.

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