Onward: Magical Maturity, by Tyler Smith
After several sequels and a few misfires, Pixar is back on track with Dan Scanlon’s Onward, a film that is equal parts comedy, heart, and imagination. Like the best offerings from the studio, Onward balances several tones at once, pivoting effortlessly from one to the next without ever jarring the audience. The film may kick things off with some in-depth exposition, but within just a few minutes, we feel like we’re in very capable hands. Scanlon never gives us more than we can handle, and it quickly becomes clear that he trusts his audience to handle quite a bit. As such, Onward is a funny, exciting, and ultimately mature film that deserves to be discussed alongside Pixar’s best. It is truly a pleasure.
The story takes place in a reality very much like our own, with cars, cell phones, and chain restaurants. Its origins, however, are very different. It used to be a world of magic, dragons, elves, and every other manner of fantastical creature. Since then, the world modernized, setting aside mysticism for more practical living. In the midst of this world is young Ian (Tom Holland), a sheepish high school student living with his widowed mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt). On Ian’s 16th birthday, his mother gives him a keepsake of his deceased father’s; a magical staff loaded with a spell that brings his father back to life for 24 hours. At least, that’s the idea. Something goes wrong with the spell, leaving Ian and Barley with only the reanimated lower half of their father and setting them off on a journey to bring him back completely.
If that sounds like a lot of setup, that’s because it is. The first twenty minutes of the film are so packed with information – about the world, the family, the magic spell – that it’s hard to keep up. Thankfully, as Ian and Barley set off on their journey, the film shifts from exposition to action. And that action is often breathtakingly exciting. Director Dan Scanlon wrings every bit of suspense and emotion out of each action set piece. But, of course, the adventure is just decoration. As in the best Pixar films, the real story is the deepening relationship between Ian, Barley, and their father (who communicates through purposeful taps of his foot).
As we slowly work our way towards a reunion between the boys and their father, the film meditates on the nature of loss and the human tendency to define ourselves by what we don’t have instead of what we do. Ian, in particular, has idealized his father – who died before Ian was born – to the point of neglecting the other members of his family. As Ian becomes more desperate, the film becomes more poignant. But, when the story pivots, undercutting audience desires, it is tremendously satisfying and we, like Ian, adjust our perspective, embracing something altogether different than what we first expected. This kind of thematic bait-and-switch is a risky move, and could wind up feeling cheap and unearned (as it did in Toy Story 4), but Scanlon roots it so firmly in his well-realized characters that it is deeply effective.
The best family films are based on trust. They trust that the kids in the audience are more perceptive and insightful than we might imagine, and that the adults are willing to set aside their cynicism and engage their imaginations. In dealing with fantastic creatures and magical spells, but rooting its story in themes of love, loss, and identity, Onward demonstrates its desire to entertain viewers of all ages. It neither talks down to the children nor winks at the adults. Instead, it invites everybody that has ever experienced disappointment, isolation, affection, and hope into its strange little world and reassess our motivations and values. It is a remarkably mature film, while still visually dazzling and narratively satisfying.