Pixar’s newest film, Onward, was released in theaters in March of 2020. Due to the unique circumstances of our world today, Disney+ released this movie on its platform at the beginning of April.
We have been self-quarantined in our house as much as possible for over a month now. The only outside ventures lately have been very limited, with sporadic runs to the pet store or grocery store for essentials. And while I am a bit of a home-body, a trip to the grocery store is not enough to satisfy even my moderate desire to socialize out in the world! Sadly, this is the reality for most of the world right now. We go out only when it is absolutely necessary, and in my opinion, those trips out are extremely stressful and there is a lot of tension surrounding everyone in the world today.
How I miss visiting my friends, going out for a drink, and especially hitting up the movie theater. I’m one of those people who absolutely LOVES going to the movies. For me, the theater still holds magic inside its walls. I get teary-eyes during powerful trailers even! It’s an experience that I adore, but only recently realized how much so.
That brings me to Onward. This was the last movie I saw in theaters before the world as we knew it shut down. Because of this, Onward holds a significantly special place in my heart.
When we arrived at the theater, we noticed one of the crew wiping the door handles off with disinfectant wipes. I remember this gave me extra comfort as I knew the theater was only selling 50% of its tickets per show to limit the amount of people in each theater. It’s funny now, looking back, because we didn’t realize how serious the disease was at the time. We also didn’t know that this would be the last time we would be able to go out for a fun evening for… well, the end date is still a mystery.
When Onward was released on Disney+, I had a lot of surprising emotions. The most prominent was sadness. For our podcast, Sisters of Main Street, myself and fellow host Angela decided to do a review of the movie. That meant I needed to watch the movie again. But I was hesitant, and needed to figure out why.
The movie is, in a word, incredible. It is amazingly creative, funny, heart warming, and adventurous all at once – a true feat for any movie to accomplish. The characters became instant favorites, especially Barley, which I will get into in just a minute. I knew I loved the movie, so why the hesitation?
Every once in a while, a memory is being made right in front of your eyes. You are cognizant of the transition from “moment” to “lifelong memory”. It’s rare, but it happens. And it happened when I saw this movie in theater. An occurrence that strong leaves an emotional impression on the soul, and this movie is one of those occurrences for me. So, writing a review with that much feeling behind it is truly difficult. But I felt it necessary to preface this review with the meaningful background that this movie brings. Thanks for listening 🙂
Now, let’s get into the actual movie!
Onward takes place in a city called New Mushroomtown. What seems like centuries ago, the world in which Onward takes place was filled with magic. The creatures living in this world were also more in touch with their magical tendencies, for example the Centaur that was powerful and could run for miles and miles, or the pixies that would fly around the landscape to travel. However, not everyone had the capability to use magic, as it was a hard element to control. Since necessity is the mother of all invention, those without this skill invented new ways to complete tasks. And, true to the nature of every living thing, we follow the path with least resistance. So as these inventions and tools became more popular, and made chores and every day activities easier, the need for magic lessened until finally, magic became a long lost memory.
And it is at this point where we meet the Lightfoot’s. The starring family is composed of widowed mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and her two sons. They are Barley (Chris Pratt), aged 19, and Ian (Tom Holland), who is turning 16 years old on the day we meet the family. We learn that their father passed away when Ian was a baby, and the only way he can remember his father is vicariously through his big brother, Barley.
Ian is a nervous, shy boy that appears to feel comfortable with organization and lots of structure. He uses lists to keep himself on track, dresses very neatly, and is soft spoken and reserved around his family. He has both feet on the ground and worries over things that are outside of his comfort zone. For example, he is stressed over driving and even the process of practicing puts him on edge.
Barley is the exact opposite of his little brother. He is loud, VERY loud, and extremely animated – even for an animated character! He absolutely loves the lore of magic, and is unabashedly vocal about his thirst for adventure. Barley is one of my ultimate favorite characters in any movie, ever. I mean, he’s such a geek, like me! He’s also the oldest, like me, and I can relate entirely to the love and dedication he feels for his younger brother. But more on that in a minute.
Another “character” that needs to be mentioned is the lore. The lore of magic in this film mimics, or sometimes full-on takes from, magic-based games and lore from our world. There are nods to Magic the Gathering as well as Dungeons and Dragons throughout the film, as well as many Lord of the Rings references as well.
We also meet Laurel’s boyfriend, centaur and police-officer Colt Bronco. It doesn’t appear that Barley and Colt are too fond of one another, and Ian is just a neutral member of that weir triangle. Colt seems unimpressed by Barley’s antics and, well, nonexistent direction. Laurel expresses her own frustrations with Barley’s “gap year”, so it’s understood that she must complain about it to Colt. But Barley is also unimpressed with Colt’s banter, and I’m assuming this stems from the fact that Barley remembers his father clearly. So we pick up on the family dynamics pretty early on in the movie.
Laurel surprises Ian with a birthday gift from… his father?! He had put it aside until Ian’s 16th birthday. The gift is a wizard’s staff, which comes with a spell! This spell will bring back their father for 24-hours.
Barley is the expert on magic and spells, and takes a crack at it. We realize that Barley unfortunately does not have the gift. But Ian does. Unfortunately, something goes wrong. In the middle of the spell, the phoenix stone used to charge the staff cracks, rendering it useless, and only the bottom half of their father materializes.
Yup. Only the bottom half!
This thrusts the brothers into their own “quest” to find a new phoenix stone, complete the spell, and bring the rest of their father back to spend whatever time they can with him!
The quest is adventurous and laden with fun challenges. They meet other at-one-point-in-time mythical creatures, and even inspire some pixies to regain their power of flight. This is just one instance where the brother inspire some old magical ties back to some people; but I won’t give it all away!
Ian’s focused on bringing his father back and spending some quality time with the man he never got to knew. He creates a list of activities that he would like to complete with his father. However, as time runs out, he is forced to cross some of those items off of the list. During this quest, there is a struggle between Ian and Barley. Ian wants to use practical knowledge to complete the tasks set before them. But Barley is pulling from his knowledge of the world of magic and lore. Ian becomes so focused on getting his father back, at times he can be very harsh to his big brother. Barley comes alive when he realizes they have their own personal quest to complete, and wants to show his little brother that he can be helpful in this situation.
Chris Pratt voices Barley and honestly, I don’t believe any one else could have done better. I’ll be honest. I was a little nervous because Pratt is such a well-known celebrity, I thought I would only hear his voice, and not be able to separate it from Barley. But that is not the case. Barely is so awesome and unique, and Pratt’s talents of being loud, goofy, and wild really lend to this character. Tom Holland, who voices Ian, did a great job as well, the casting really is fantastic, but the stand out for me is Pratt.
Throughout this quest, you get to see a side of the brothers that you rarely see in characters anywhere. You see their insecurities and fears, and I think it is really cool how this movie explores the uncertainty of this age group for boys. I feel this is an overlooked area that many movies do not focus on. It’s extremely real and touching, even down right vulnerable, and those emotions can be related to by pretty much everyone. But showing it through these boys was revolutionary.
In Disney and Pixar movies, of which I feel I can speak confidently, the range of emotions has always been much more vast in the female characters. I can recall some male characters that might stand out a tad above the rest, Hercules and Aladdin come to mind. But even then they have more successes and raw feelings rather than intricate, complicated feelings. Hercules shows a slight insecurity in the town, but he overcomes that greatly. Aladdin eludes to being embarrassed by his humble background, but honestly he never really portrays this, except for the fact that he needs to be a prince – but that is more for Jasmine and not because he feels anything in particular.
The bond between the brothers, partnered by the incredibly in depth character development of them both, is what makes this movie a true treasure. When Frozen was released, we cheered for the “true love” that saved Elsa and Anna because it did not come from a prince for once! It was a true revelation. Onward delivers the same revelation and cause for celebration with these brothers.
Without giving away too much about the actual plot of the film, I will say this. By the time you reach the end of the film, you will have witnessed a transformation in Ian that is… for lack of a better term… magical. You will be cheering for the brothers, and if you’re like me, crying like a baby! But in a good way, promise! You will relate to these elves, and some points will ring true to struggles we all face. The amazing way this movie brings mythical characters in to the modern lore is captivating, and brings a sense of familiarity to the movie that makes it easy to feel connected to the characters. It’s very special.
This movie is packed with excellent nods to magic and lore, exceptional characters – even the supporting characters are excellent – and a nostalgic feel as we meet up with familiar characters inside their own world. I really can’t say enough good things about it. But the most important part, personally, is the wonderful memories this movie already brings me.
I don’t like to push movies on people, because everyone has their own taste. But I feel this one could get overlook easily, and so I’m here to say, check this movie out! You will not regret it!