Onward: Good advice for us all

Onward is a low-key great Pixar film that got swallowed up by a terrible year. You should definitely watch it if you haven't.

Onward: Good advice for us all

As promised, this begins The Pixar Project, where I’m going to review all of the Pixar films in the run-up to the Dec. 25 release of Soul. If you know a friend or relative or Pixar aficionado who’d enjoy this project, please pass it along.


We did it; we made it to the end of the Pixar catalog of films. Rounding out our list was 2020’s Onward, which I had not seen until now. It was a wonderful conclusion to a wonderful experiment. If you slept on this one like I did, I would encourage you to remedy that as soon as possible. It’s a heartwarming tale of brotherly love and familial connection.

Elves Ian and Barley are brothers in a land that looks similar to ours in many ways, but it has more of the lasting effects of a magical past. Magic was everywhere, but it died out for lack of ease to use and technology supplanted it. Ian was turning 16, and he was missing his late father. Barley was a bit older, taking a gap year, and obsessed with historical and magical culture. Ian’s mother gives him a gift from his father that he’d left with her before he died with instructions to give to the boys when both were older than 16. It was a magical staff and a phoenix gem, which together had the power to cast a spell that would bring him back for one day. Barley, obsessed with magic, was naturally the one to try the spell, but after many attempts, nothing happened. On a whim, Ian tries later and magic happens. Midway through the spell, he loses the magic touch, but not before he was able to conjure the lower half of their father. Just the waist down, a pair of khakis, his trademark purple socks, and some brown dress shoes. The film takes off from there as the brothers set out on a quest, towing along their half-a-father, to find a new phoenix gem, complete the spell, generate the rest of him before the 24-hour clock runs out.

This film, in addition to being heartwarming and touching thematically, just feels like a collage of disparate pop culture references that make it a rollicking good time. There are numerous instances of this, but here are some that stood out.

The brothers, Ian and Barley, are voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, respectively. Those two actors bring with them the baggage of their other Disney-related characters: the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Peter Parker/Spiderman and Peter Quill/Starlord from the Guardians of the Galaxy, respectively. Their voices are recognizable to any fan of the MCU, but so are the words they’re uttering, since both of those MCU characters have dealt with loss of father figures. Young Peter Parker, always depicted with the cosmic guilt of losing his Uncle Ben until the MCU, which never mentions Ben, found a father figure in Tony Stark, and their tender relationship animates much of the final phase of the MCU’s initial run of comic book films. In the second Guardians of the Galaxy film, Starlord’s long-absent father becomes a direct storyline, and in one scene, they explore their powers together by playing a game of catch, Field of Dreams-style, with a ball of energy Starlord had just learned he could create. On Ian’s list of things to do with his father was “Play catch,” and he realizes at the film’s end that he’d had a magical version of a catch with his brother during their adventure.

At the beginning of the film, Ian was an awkward teenager, unsure of himself and trying desperately to fit in, much like Holland’s Peter Parker in the MCU. Even though he’s developed these superpowers and fought all kinds of villains, he still just wants to ask out MJ or be noticed by her in any way whatsoever. He grows more and more confident in his teenage, school-related endeavors as he does more and more in his superhero persona. In Onward, Ian follows the same trajectory, coming into his own by the film’s end, and enjoys a well-adjusted life with friends and new confidence, acceptance of his mom’s boyfriend, and a renewed and strengthened relationship with his brother.

Chirs Pratt’s Barley also evokes comparisons to Pratt’s most-famous character, Andy Dwyer of Parks and Recreation. He has the same wide-eyed wonder and overwhelming positivity and lovable loser vibes as Andy, with a dash of Parks and Rec’s Ben Wyatt character thrown into the mix with his love of arcane board games and embrace of his world’s version of nerd culture. Both characters exemplify the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants strategy to life. Both are counterpoints to characters who would preach a more nuanced, cautious, and planned-out approach to life. Neither should be as fortunate as they are if conventional wisdom prevailed, but their uninhibited approach to life is refreshing and often seductive to the viewer, as if to suggest “Wouldn’t you like to live like this? Just for a little bit, at least?”

Another pop culture comparison that flooded my mind as I watched the film is Barley/Pratt’s resemblance to Jack Black’s character in School of Rock. Both are prone to these over-the-top theatrical voices imploring you to care about their subculture interests. Both drive around in a ratty old van and pump up lock rock-and-roll music. Both are slightly chubby and endearing and sweet.

There’s a moment when Barley is angry at Ian because it appears pretty clear that Ian thinks Barley is a screw-up. Barley grows surly and silent, cranking up the music as loud as it will go to drown out Ian’s attempts to apologize. They stop the van and are hashing things out standing outside the van, while the music still blares inside it. Through the open sliding door of the van, they can see their half-a-father, who can’t hear because he’s topless and therefore ear-less, dancing around to the music because he can feel its vibrations. His dancing amuses the boys, abhors them really, in a way, embarrasses them the ways dads are supposed to but clearly they’ve never experienced. He gets them to start dancing, nudging a reluctant Ian into the dance party as he says, “I’m not much of a dancer.” Which is hilarious, considering Ian is voiced by Holland, as the real-world creeps in and influences how we see these characters; Holland is an excellent dancer, and the hallowed rules of Twitter insist that if you ever run across his Lip Sync Battle clip where he dances to Rhianna’s Umbrella, you must share it with your timeline.

There are more fun nods to famous moments of pop culture. On their quest, the brothers end up in a Raiders of the Lost Ark situation. They’re inside an ancient temple of some sort, with narrow corridors and the skeletons of felled adventurers. At one point, they’re outrunning a giant object (for them, a giant green gelatinous blob that’s been alluded to by Barley often in the film) and they must run across pressure-sensitive stones that cause spears to be shot out of the walls when stepped on.

Or when the the film ends with distinctive Back to the Future energy, when Ian and Barley, in Barley’s new van, seek to take the less obvious path on their trip, and Ian uses his magic to levitate the van and suddenly they’re flying. The only thing missing was the iconic line: “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

Or the Harry and James Potter similarities between Ian and his dad. Ian meets an old college classmate of his father’s at a fast food restaurant, and the man regales Ian with an image of his father he’d never known. It felt a lot like the same reputation that James Potter enjoyed at Hogwarts, and the connections of magic and a fatherless upbringing make Ian and Harry close analogs.

These references and connections stimulate our pop culture pleasure centers; we know these formulas, and they resonate with us for a reason. But don’t let my focus on these elements suggest those are the only reasons the film works. It’s as emotionally resonant as any of Pixar’s greatest hits. It made me thankful for family and the memories we associate with them. It made me thankful for my brother, who like the two in the film, I took way too long in life to realize was an awesome human being. It was a great film to watch right after a strange Christmas in a strange year; it was the first time in my 33 years that I hadn’t been home for the holidays. It was a great reminder of who and what I was missing out on, and that feels like a fitting way to end this Pixar Project of mine: with a reminder of all the things that Pixar’s so good at evoking — family, love, bonds, adventure, unexpected heroes,  and the promise of more to come.


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