The Only Onward Movie Review You Need to Read
The name of Pixar’s latest masterpiece, Onward, indicates more than just a title; it’s also the theme. In this instant classic, a pair of teenage elven brothers come to terms with the death of their father…in novel fashion. They bring him back to life…well, part of him. And then they embark on an unintentional but epic quest to restore the rest of him.
Anyone who has watched the trailers already knows the gist, but how is the entire movie? Read on for a glowingly positive review of Onward.
The Brothers Lightfoot
The conceit of Onward will amuse cynics who people-watch our technologically advanced society each day. The philosophy of the film involves magic, which everyone in the town of New Mushroomton accepts as real. However, they’ve gotten bored by it and moved on to standard scientific applications instead. Even the winged creatures willingly pay for airfare travel.
Yes, at some point, everyone in town gave up their magic. It’s a metaphor for how we all cope with grief and loss. The world grows a bit dimmer. Specifically, the Lightfoot brothers have grown up without a father. One lost him at a young age, while the other never even knew his dad.
The Lightfoot house doesn’t lack for love, of course. Laurel Lightfoot demonstrates tremendous compassion and care for her sons. She’s even gotten over the heartbreak of her dead husband and found herself a new man centaur. But everyone in the house lives in hidden shadows.
I’ve made this sound dreary and dull, but it’s the context that drives the plot. In reality, Barley, the older Lightfoot brother, is almost delusional with his positivity. He’s making the best of his life, as he takes a gap year from school. Barley’s all about respecting the lost ways of society, the ones that people have shunned in favor of modern convenience.
Ian Lightfoot, the younger brother, is turning 16 and ready to start deciding who he is in life. Unlike Barley, he’s shy and insecure, struggling to find his place in the world. Ian’s driven by the lack of a male role model and quite embarrassed by his goofy older brother, who isn’t respected in New Mushroomton. Ian’s the protagonist in this tale, even though it plays out more like a buddy movie.
About New Mushroomton
Pixar has brought a Dungeons & Dragons campaign to life. Sure, the film draws inspiration from all forms of mystical arcana. Sources like Magic the Gathering, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and others are noticeable to those who pay attention. You don’t need to do that, though.
Onward is more about the journey than the destination. Many of the sight gags and scenes start as supernatural in nature, but then Pixar’s wit brings humanity’s everyday foibles into play. A pub may dispense mystical quests, but it can also operate like a Chuck E. Cheese, too.
Throughout the film, I found myself reminded of Toy Story. The Pizza Planet scene from that movie feels like the basis for at least three sequences from Onward. It takes an everyday human setting and then muddles the situation by introducing fantasy creatures from the fables of yore.
In fact, a more modern comparison is Zootopia, only with fictional creatures rather than zoo animals. Pixar mines the fertile comedic potential to the maximum value, as a mythical Manticore struggles with her job before melting down. A group of Pixies displays violent tendencies as an angry gang with a joint Napoleon complex. And unicorns randomly appear to show that they’ve gone feral.
This story subverts expectations at every turn, as director/co-writer Dan Scanlon throws out accepted notions about elves, unicorns, et al. They’re just as desperate for time-killing distractions as we are. So they pave their wonderlands in favor of concrete roads.
Perhaps the wryest joke in Onward is that mythical animals are real, but they’re pretty bored with their lives. Their sense of whimsy has died. The social media era has glorified unicorns for their idyllic beauty. So, it’s hilarious that they’re trash scavengers. Nothing is quite right in New Mushroomton.
The Story of Onward
I won’t spoil anything here other than what’s in the trailers. The brothers cast a spell that returns their father…halfway. His upper torso doesn’t apparate, forcing the teens to hide him in a sweatshirt, jacket, sunglasses, and hat.
Oddly, this outfit and the father’s physical appearance lead to some Weekend at Bernie’s jokes. And I swear that one sequence during the climax forcibly reminded me of The Lego Movie. So, Pixar’s liberally borrowing from many genres here.
Maybe that’s why the jokes land so regularly. Items that are in plain sight throughout the movie became integral to the plot in unpredictable fashion. Meanwhile, the boys work against a timeline to restore their father to full form, which would give all of them a chance to say good-bye.
Laurel Lightfoot, the mother, participates in some of the early attempts. However, she soon embarks on a side quest while her boys try to find a second Phoenix Gem, a source of power. Yes, this sounds like every RPG that you’ve ever played, and that’s by design.
Onward’s plot would work just as well as a videogame. No software developer could introduce the amount of heart and compassion that the movie does, though. It’s yet another Pixar title that will tug on your heartstrings, demonstrating how families pull together in the wake of a loss.
As voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, Ian and Barley grow more aware of one another’s shortcomings. And Laurel demonstrates again and again that she’s a supermom of the highest order. The three of them don’t need Wilden, the reanimated man, as much as they think. However, they want him back in their lives for a time. And that’s how grief works at its core.
Evaluating Onward against Other Pixar Titles
Each time Pixar releases another movie, it doesn’t merely compete against itself. It also must demonstrate that it deserves the Pixar name. And movie-goers are quite harsh in judging. See: The Good Dinosaur.
I’m happy to report that as I exited the theater after Onward, I knew that I’d just watched something special. The philosophy of the film warms me. I’ve got two older brothers, and I certainly evaluated them in a slightly different light after Onward. I suspect that’s at least part of the point.
Pixar wants people to reflect a bit on the power of the family dynamic, whether you contemplate relationships with blood relatives or the family you choose along the way. It’s a shamelessly optimistic film about how we all persevere in times of tragedy…and move Onward.
Do you agree that technology has reduced our sense of whimsy? Well, Pixar just produced a movie that proves otherwise.