Rambling on about “Onward”

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GRAPHIC BY RIEL WHITTLE / THE FLAT HAT

Let’s talk about the new Pixar movie, which I liked best or maybe second-best (Coco is also pretty good) of all the recent releases from the animation studio, but which still doesn’t really hold a candle to the ones we used to watch as kids (because how could anything compare?). I’m slightly biased against the new movies, but I play Dungeons & Dragons for four hours every week, so here’s my inevitable review of Onward. There will be spoilers!

Onward is Pixar’s take on a modern fantasy setting, in which two elf boys, Ian and Barley, have a chance to spend the day with their father who died when they were young. They are able to revive him halfway with magic before the source of their power shatters mid-spell, leaving them with only their father’s magically reanimated legs. With twenty-four hours slipping away before their eyes, the two brothers go on a quest to find another Phoenix gem, which will allow them to complete the spell and bring back their dad. In spite of the standardness of the dead parent trope, I actually thought the story was sweet and a little heartbreaking, and really felt for these boys moving mountains to spend one day with the father they’d never gotten to know.

Before I really get into it with the plot, I have to dig into the world-building that’s so vital to this story. Ian and Barley live in a universe that was once very much your standard fantasy setting, with all the trappings of tabletop adventures — gelatinous cubes, starting in a tavern, magic users and daring adventurers. Even their in-world tabletop roleplaying game, “Quests of Yore,” is proven to be historically accurate, right down to the spell book. As the story goes, once these fantasy folks began to develop modern technology, they gradually gave up magic for convenience’s sake. Why use your fairy wings when you could drive a car? How profitable is a dangerous tavern when you could be running a family restaurant? Why preserve the relics of your magical past when there are new things to be built on top of it? The idea of magic fading away due to technology is one of the film’s least believable arguments – I’d be more likely to be convinced by a Harry Potter style progression – that modern technology is rendered kind of silly and unnecessary in the magical world, more of a source of amusement than something that’s actually more convenient than magic. Because if it’s as easy as this movie would have me believe, nothing is more convenient (or cooler) than magic. But on the other hand, I can see where this movie is coming from. The idea of a world like ours having magic just to squander it in favor of the next shiny thing – can’t your inner cynic see it happening, just a little?

One product of such a world is Barley Lightfoot, the older of the two elf brothers. Barley is obsessed with his world’s magical history – he’s practically memorized the contents of the Quests of Yore player’s handbook, is engaged in the study of magic despite not being able to do it himself, and even goes so far as to chain himself to ancient magical ruins to protest their removal. As much as I like the idea of an elf that plays D&D, his fascination with magic made me a little sad. It was never brought up explicitly, but the fact that Barley isn’t magical by birth must have once been a source of great sadness for him. I could imagine him trying and trying to get it right as a kid, eventually giving up and accepting that he’d never be able to live up to the great adventurers he used to read about. In the film, he never gives any sign of resentment when Ian shows magic aptitude – he’s simply proud of his little brother. I’d almost have liked to see him express, during one of their fights, that he would have been able to use magic much more proficiently than Ian had he been the one born with natural abilities. He would have felt like less of screwup. And we, as an audience, would know that he was right.

That, or he might be arrested trying to do something stupid and dramatic with his powers to protest society’s abandonment of magic – thus, driving them deeper into their ideals. Something I thought was interesting about Barley’s character was that he could read as a little backwards sometimes! He’s obsessed with history and “the good old days,” he tells the modern biker sprites to their face that they can’t fly because their ancestors were lazy. This aspect of his character, this rejection of the modern values of his fantasy society, I wouldn’t expect Pixar to lean into, but it raises an interesting question of what the reputation of someone like Barley is in his world. To his friends and neighbors, is he an eccentric nerd? A passionate environmentalist? A far-right conservative? Or just a dude with nostalgia for a time he’s never known?

Whoever he is, he’s a very effective foil for his brother Ian, a shy high schooler who only wants to fly under the radar. Where Barley is outspoken, stubborn, and follows his gut, Ian is anxious and timid, and always thinks things through. Where Barley wants to go on a big adventure like in Quests of Yore, Ian wants to get the job done in the fastest way possible (the two of them easily represent the division between magic users and technology supporters!). From the getgo, I thought Ian’s arc was very clear – He has to drive on the highway. He has to ask the cool kids to come to his birthday party. He has to learn to trust his older brother. And, of course, he has to meet his dad, who died before he was even born. In fact, he has an itemized list of all the things he wants to do with his father during the one day they have together – a list that gets progressively shorter as they run out of time.

It’s pretty tragic how little time they have to complete this quest, but it’s enough for Ian to achieve some of his ambitions – though not with his father. In a critical moment, he realizes that everything he’d wanted to do with his dad, he has already done with Barley, who was the father figure he always thought he lacked. Having never met the man, Ian always held Wilden Lightfoot on a pedestal where no other family member could reach – his “screwup” brother could never compare, so Ian never even considered him. But he comes to appreciate the family he has and the sacrifices they make out of love for him. This is where the story actually really began to remind me of Frozen – And just as Anna sacrifices herself to save her sister in the end, Ian sacrifices the chance to meet his father so that Barley can finally say goodbye to him. I totally didn’t sob the whole time or anything.

There were, of course, some plot moments that made me question this movie’s logic. There are many isolated moments of conflict throughout the plot, but most of them get wrapped up within a couple of seconds. Ian finds his courage so quickly in the tavern (something I thought might take the entire movie to happen), and the brothers are able to convert Corey the manticore back to her old adventuring self in one short scene. Barley’s reasoning for taking the Path of Peril rather than the expressway is also a bit flimsy – and it probably costs them time. In their current situation, Barley should know better, or we should get a better reason as to why the expressway (in the middle of the night, I might add) is ultimately the wrong choice.

Logical shortcomings aside, I ultimately really enjoyed Onward. There’s a lot to like about this movie, and as my final talking point, I think the fact that they’re traveling with a sentient pair of disembodied legs is probably the most memorable part. That Ian and Barley just have a pair of legs walking around with them is pretty funny on its own, but it also makes for some terrifying action sequences – because it’s not just legs, it’s their blind-deaf father who is unable to defend himself or run away. And he ends up contributing to their adventure, too. Wil Lightfoot has a lot of character – even though he can’t hear, see, or speak, he can still save his boys using his supernatural form. He can still reach out to make sure they’re there.

And he can still dance!