I’m not sure if it’s an American condition or a human one, but noticing what’s missing comes naturally for most of us- more naturally than noticing what we do have.
We regret the roads not taken, the conversations not had, the opportunities we were never given. We grieve the relationships that have ended and the holes those people have left in our lives.
So when Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), the protagonist of Pixar’s lovely film “Onward”, looks at an old family photo, we understand his unique kind of melancholy. Yes, there’s Ian with his mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and his brother Barley (Chris Pratt), but there is also a father-shaped hole in the picture. The absence is noticeable, and the hurt is palpable.
“Onward” is predicated on what is perhaps the ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy: What if you could bring back someone you lost for just one day? What would you do? What would you say? Can the hole ever be filled?
The film’s answer to this last question – “yes”- may not surprise you, but I think the road it takes to get there might. A hole can’t be filled by one person, the film suggests, and it takes the love and kindness of those we often overlook to make us whole.
It’s this kind of charming social observation that has been a hallmark of Pixar since their “Toy Story” days, and it’s nice to see that it remains a part of their formula. Because, really, these quiet observational moments are the best parts of “Onward,” and the central storyline, cliché as it may be at times, works because of them.
The plot gives us a prototypical hero’s journey as Ian, an elf living in a modern-day fantasy world, uses a wizard’s staff to bring his dad back to life for a day. Or at least halfway back to life: the spell fizzles off halfway, which means Ian and Barley have to take care of a sentient pair of legs as they search for the obligatory magical doohickey (It’s called a Phoenix Gem in this film.) to bring the rest of dad back before the legs disappear in 24 hours.
Reciting the plot probably makes the film sound a bit more kookily bizarre than it actually ends up being. That isn’t to say there aren’t some great ideas – feral unicorns and biker gang pixies among them- but they are so fleeting that none of them are given much time to register.
Pixar’s done the quest thing before, but none of the stops in “Onward” have the same manic energy as say the surfer dude turtles in “Finding Nemo” or even the cattle-ranching T-rexes in “The Good Dinosaur.” The gags simply aren’t given room to breathe as the film rushes along on its quest.
A side-plot involving Ian’s mom and a former adventurer known as the Manticore (Octavia Spencer) is also direly short of laughs. Why spend good money on Louis-Dreyfus and Spencer if you’re not going to give them anything funny to do or say?
What does work is the central relationship between brothers Ian and Barley, played by Holland and Pratt in some of the most on-the-nose casting imaginable. The film’s best scenes, including a nerve-jangling walk over an invisible bridge, come as Barley trains his brother in the magical arts, and the actors deliver chemistry in spades.
It’s also a testament to Pixar’s craft, I think, that the whole disembodied leg thing manages to not only be the butt of some of the film’s best “Weekend at Bernie’s”- style jokes, but also a source of incredible poignancy. Watching dad communicate with his kids through a sort of foot-driven Morse code is incredibly charming and sweet.
The finale delivers not only the poignancy you expect in a film like this, but also the coolest dragon design I’ve seen in a movie bar-none. The last 20 minutes or so are worth the price of admission in and of themselves.
Overall, “Onward”, for all its charming moments, felt ever so slight to me, and I’m not sure if it holds its own with the best of Pixar’s output. But keep in mind that I felt much the same way about “Coco” and Monsters Inc.” at first, and both of those have grown on me considerably after multiple viewings.
As in life, if you focus on what is missing from “Onward” (rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements), you will undoubtedly find its flaws. But I also think there is incredible power in a film that encourages young and old to take new stock of their relationships, to truly appreciate those around them and to let go of the hurts of the past.
There is still magic in the world, “Onward” tells us, but you can’t see it if you’re focused on what you’ve lost. It’s time to grow, move forward and show others the love they’ve shown us. It’s time to go onward.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at email@example.com.