Onward: Pixar's Best Original in Years

Niamh Brook - Writer

I first learnt about Onward early last year and honestly I wasn’t fussed. It tells the story of two elf brothers on a quest to bring their father back to life for a day. It sounds like your generic Pixar, right? Now, I’m going to be honest with you, I’m not a fan of fantasy. I have tried and failed countless times to enjoy the realms of orcs and trolls but I’d choose aliens and spaceships any day.  Fantasy just doesn’t appeal to me. That’s one strike against my intrigue for Onward, the second comes from my rocky relationship with Pixar. Like most relationships, the first few years (or 10 in Pixar’s case) were great, fantastic storytelling and characters. Life was good. But Pixar got complacent in our relationship.  Getting lazy, putting in little effort, thinking Cars 3 and some petrol station flowers were enough to get by. I’m sorry Pixar, but it wasn’t. I feel like they have lost my trust. Granted they have released some great original films in the last 10 years, but seven out of the eleven films were sequels and one was a critical failure (The Good Dinosaur). So that’s two strikes against Onward. The film was released on 6th March, two weeks before lockdown. Safe to say, even if I wanted to, I didn’t get a chance to see it in the cinema. 

I watched a week or so ago as I was curious to see what it was like. I didn’t expect much but my god I was wrong. On the surface level Onward does what is says on the tin. A modern day quest for a magic gem with wacky antics along the way. Not that groundbreaking. But hidden deep within the fibers of the film, it deals with deeply important themes. The two brothers in the film, Ian and Barley, lost their father at a young age. The film doesn’t shy away from showing how deeply this affected them. Grief in particular is explored in a wonderfully intimate and heartbreaking way in the discussion of a young Barley being too afraid of the sight of his dying father in his hospital bed to say his final goodbye. This scene acts as a defining explanation of his character, deciding at that moment he would never be afraid of anything again. His brash behaviour completely justified through the heartbreak of the loss of his dad. What's even more brilliant, is the two brothers' personalities mirror how grief at a young age can affect you for the rest of your life. Ian, the youngest brother, never got to meet his father, and as a result he has a compulsive need to write lists, lacks self confidence and isolates himself from others. Barley, on the other hand, is unapologetically himself and this causes him to become somewhat unlikeable and oafish. The two drastically oppose each other as they both deal with the loss of their father in such different ways. Pixar has dealt with the idea of death in their films in the past, but none have explored this deeply how it can change a person and ultimately it will stay with them for the rest of their lives.  

What made the film so impactful for me is that in the age of Me Too, an effort has been made within cinema so that little girls can have films that teach them the important lessons on how to be a woman in a modern age. This is absolutely fantastic. Film is a key aspect to our understanding of ourselves and the society we live in. Both as children and adults we need film to teach us how to grow and how to handle certain aspects of life. Few films however,  teach boys about vulnerability, love and self acceptance in a way that Onward does. In a society where we teach young men that their emotions should be repressed, as it is deemed not ‘manly’ to feel, it's so refreshing to see these two young men be presented as openly feeling such a wide range of emotions in just the two hours they have on screen. The film also takes it’s time to discuss male relationships and how this can be affected through loss. Throughout the film, the viewer is almost tricked into thinking that the elder brother Barley is idotic and somewhat selfish. We learn, as protagonist Ian does, how much Barley has dedicated his life to care and support his younger brother. It isn’t until the second watch you see this love and protection clear as day throughout the entire film. That is what I find so wonderful about this film, how layered both the narrative and the characters feel. For a film about elves it just feels so wonderfully human. The presentation of love between the two brothers is so refreshing to see, they both make important sacrifices for one another, to ensure one another's happiness. An important lesson for young people watching to learn. 

Now, even though the films' protagonists are two young men, this does not mean that the film does not feature well written female characters. Pixar filled the film with fantastically funny female characters that really help to drive the film. The boy’s mother, Laurel, is fabulously written. A suburban mother, she fits the typical conventions of a mother in family film. However, Lauren truly holds her own within the film, she is brave, funny and willing to do anything for her children. Pixar has struggled with some of its female characters in the past.  Laurel and her new friend The Manticore are brilliant examples of how female characters should be written for their films in the future. Much like Ian and Barely, they both go on their own emotional journeys within the film and grow into better people by the end. And they are just the supporting characters. Onward makes an effort to make sure that every character involved, even a dismembered pair of legs, plays an important part in telling the message of the film and I think that’s pretty great. 

Onward exceeded all of my expectations. Don’t get me wrong, the film is not without its faults with it being a tad too formulaic at times but the film thrives in its telling of its deeper themes and its presentation of character. Throughout, the film keeps you engaged as you grow more and more attached to the Lightfoot clan, eventually causing you to deeply root for their success as it rips out your heart in the process. Onward is not the best Pixar film of all time, it is no way near the standard of Toy Story or Monsters Inc, but compared to the films we have been exposed to in the past decade, it inspires a sense of hope that Pixar’s creative spark has finally returned. 

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