It is hard to believe that Toy Story burst on to our screens 25 years ago, changing animation forever. While equally embedding the wonderful worlds created by Pixar into our collective conciousness. However, as time has passed has the magic of Pixar slowly diminished? And can Pixar still find original stories that engage and inspire new generations of children and adults alike? Well based on their first original story since the emotionally complex delights of Coco, the answer is a resounding yes. As the magical world of Onward explores core themes of grief, male relationships and brotherhood. In a colourful fantasy world that is both accessible and entertaining.
Many have claimed that Onward opts for safe Pixar territory rather than pushing the boundaries of the studio’s work. However, this simplistic view does not take into account the complexity of the themes sitting at the heart of Pixar’s latest film. A film that provides a truly heartfelt exploration of male emotion, companionship and fatherhood. While wrapping these themes in a Spielberg inspired adventure.
Set in a fantasy world that has long forgotten the magic of its past. The suburban streets of New Mushroomton reflect our own cosmopolitan and commercially driven world. As unicorns, elves and pixies have succumb to the modern trappings of tech driven society; Middle Earth transformed into a McDonalds fuelled modern world. It is here that we meet two elf brothers, the insecure and tender Ian (Tom Holland) and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt). Both boys raised by their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) after the death of their father from an illness before Ian was born.
As Ian reaches his 16th birthday, Laurel gives the boys a mysterious present left by their dad. A relic of the past in the form of a wizard’s staff, and a rare phoenix gem. Alongside a hand written spell that if correctly delivered can bring their dad back from the dead for just 24 hours. However, when both boys attempt the spell it backfires, with only the legs of their dad becoming visible. Leading them on a quest to find a second Phoenix gem that can bring back his top half before the sun goes down.
Onward excels is in a narrative that explores the differences between both brothers. With Barley’s world surrounded by the escapism of old magic and folklore. His life a mix of roleplaying games, positivity and fantasy. One that those around him including his younger brother view as emotional immaturity. While the more serious Ian longs for something his brother once had ‘a dad’. Someone he can share his emotions with, while building his confidence in the world that surrounds him. His own insecurities embedded in a feeling of having missing out on a male role model. However, despite their differences, it is their brotherly love that will ultimately lead to success or failure in their fantastical quest.
However, Onward does not simply reflect brotherly love in the face of bereavement. With the role of the boys mum also sitting centre stage. Her love for her boys shining through as she tries to protect them. While also accepting and acknowledging that the loss of their father has directly affected their own childhood experience. Of course this may all sound like the formulaic Pixar emotional rollercoaster audiences have become accustomed to. And it is fair to say that Onward does indeed follow a set studio template without much deviation. Apart from the brief but welcomed introduction of a gay character. A huge and deeply important step forward for Pixar that is long overdue.
But rising above the studio template, Onward is enveloped by an aura of love and sincerity. As Director Dan Scanlon, whose own father passed away when he was young explores his own experiences through animation. Ultimately elevating Onward from being just another Pixar film to something far more personal. A film that reflects the emotional complexity of bereavement in childhood. Alongside the importance of male role models and identity in a way few other Pixar films have managed. While in turn embracing the importance of memory, family and communication in moving forward.
What makes Onward even more impressive is its ability to wrap these emotionally complex themes into a world that shines with colour and adventure. Paying homage to Indiana Jones, Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings in every scene. While its stunning animation leaps from the screen, wrapping the audience in a blanket of beautiful orchestrated fantasy. Equally the outstanding performances of Tom Holland and Chris Pratt help imbed the journey of Ian and Barley into the hearts of the audience. Ultimately creating a film that shines with adventure, love and sincerity.
Director: Dan Scanlon