Arley: If I were grading Onward, it would get “meets expectations.” Disney/Pixar has some outstanding movies, but for me, this one doesn’t stand as their absolute best. It wasn’t outstanding or incredible, but it was solid on every front, and had emotional impact, which is basically what I expect from them. Their baseline is better than a lot of other production houses. This wasn’t as powerful as Up, for example, or Coco, or the truly magnificent Bao.
Josh: This movie was so good. I thought it was the saddest Pixar movie ever, sadder than Up. But I also think that Pixar movies are highly subjective, so your mileage may vary. Monsters, Inc. is still my favorite Pixar film, but Onward is not far behind it.
In a high-fantasy-inspired world, elven brothers Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) undertake a quest; they’re looking for the Phoenix gem, which will bring back their dead father for one last day.
Magic still exists, but it’s largely been supplanted by much more convenient modern technology, leading to striking anachronistic juxtapositions, such as a scene of the heroes striding purposefully across a pastoral landscape while, in the background, an airliner slowly scrawls a contrail across the sky. Ancient artifacts, including a ruined fountain outside of Ian’s high school, are under constant threat of municipal demolition, and a tavern where quests used to begin back “in olden days” has been transformed into a themed restaurant.
Josh: It was all a very compelling setup and premise. The Manticore’s tavern was a classic storytelling scene: it had action, humor, multiple-character development, and furthered the plot, all at once, without feeling crammed in.
Arley: That scene was really skillful! It did all of that without feeling laborious.
Josh: Everything was set up nicely in advance. The recurring “splinters” from the magic wand — I kept wondering how they’d eventually tie that in, and was impressed with the final result. Ian kept leveling up with magic spells that all had a use later on. Pacing, structure, framework — that was some solid writing.
Arley: In ways the entire movie feels a little bit textbook. As if it was written following a paint-by-numbers method. Here you have this plot device, next you have that character conflict. You know the ending from the start. Not a lot of surprises for anyone who understands basic story structure or screenwriting. At the same time, it’s all more complicated than that, and everything, every mention, every item, absolutely everything gets called back later; nothing’s wasted and it’s actually really intricate.
Josh: Sometimes it’s just nice to see something done competently.
The brothers find clues in the cards of Barley’s “Quests of Yore” tabletop role-playing game, which, in Onward, is “based on real historical events.” The self-aware humor is at a level that the show Disenchantment tries (and fails) to reach, a type of meta-fantasy popular in the Munchkin card game, Discworld books, and the Tales of Pell series. Nothing gets too in-jokey, and even though the exact workings of such a magic/technology world are not explained, the fusion never seems to break the world nor distract from the storytelling. People familiar with Dungeons & Dragons will find that the world of Onward makes sense — with characters that divide into “rogue” or “wizard” classes, and creatures straight from the Monster Manual — but even casual viewers will be able to keep up with what, at some points, feels like a high-school road trip movie and, at others, like a The Da Vinci Code-style mystery. The actual sword and sorcery is kept to a minimum. (There is a dungeon, though, and at least one dragon.)
Josh: The bit about it being a game “based on real life” reminded me of The Last Starfighter, but that’s obviously science fiction. I know there’s got to be a fantasy version out there already, but I can’t think of any examples. Mazes and Monsters, maybe, or Ready Player One (the book, not the movie). I get most of my RPG knowledge from playing NetHack. Is the gelatinous cube in D&D?
Arley: It sure is! That’s got to be the weirdest possible old-school monster from the Monster Manual. And it’s really genius because they make it feel right. It didn’t feel forced or out of place.
Josh: It wasn’t pandering.
Arley: Also, you really don’t want to mess with those things! I was like gelatinous cube for the win.
As befits a kids’ movie, our heroes are mostly not in any physical or mortal peril. Instead, the real obstacles are the clock, the cops, their mom, and getting enough gas to keep going. In many fantasies, you wonder, “Why not just use magic to fix this problem?” but the writers of Onward never let the magic become a shortcut. Every spell that Ian uses has to be learned, and is never used solely as a matter of convenience. Additionally, several conflicts are solved by Barley and other characters who lack magical powers. Some problems can’t be magicked away at all.
Arley: I really liked the biker gang. That cracked me up. There were some real pop-culture humor moments, a lot of clever or thoughtful little bits. And the dragon was cool, both the look and the concept.
Josh: The manticore (Octavia Spencer) character concept was great — this long-lived, mythological creature that has adjusted to the times.
Arley: I did love the Manticore, but also, I had a gut-cringe reaction. I was like, is this character literally a “Magical Negro“? Especially when they first met the Manticore. I almost stopped watching. Officially, it still gives me pause. Maybe it’s just that the Magical Negro is what this character would typically be, and maybe it makes watching it difficult. Some of the characteristics are there: her primary purpose is to come to the aid of the white (well, blue) protagonists. But she does have backstory, and more importantly perhaps, she has her own mini-arc, complete with character development. I want to say, with this character type and others in the movie, such as the mom and the horse-stepdad, I feel like the filmmakers (or maybe just the writer/director) were using typically bad narrative devices — which are often offensive — and building on them to make them better, more relevant parts of the overall story. On the one hand I feel like they succeeded, and I’m glad the cast is fairly diverse. The Manticore is involved, she does stuff, she makes decisions, and I feel like she has agency. On the other hand, it’s such a racist trope that I wonder if it needs to be analyzed by someone with a stronger background in this than me.
The inciting incident that sets off the quest comes when Ian and Barley attempt a resurrection spell to bring their father back, if only for one day. But the spell goes awry and they’re only able to summon the lower half of his body, which can’t see, hear, or talk. Realizing that he broke his phone during the spellcasting, Ian sets a 24-hour timer on his watch. Soon as that ticking clock starts, you can see the emotional impact coming over the horizon. You know, given Pixar’s track record, it’s still going to be hard-hitting, even if you’ve braced for it.
Arley: It was such a touching moment when Ian realized the importance of his brother. I actually started crying. I give this movie kudos because it put another emotional layer on. The viewer might be focused on the father-son aspect, and I think whatever many years ago this would be that fairly straightforward father-son story. But the arc of the brothers and their relationship is even stronger, more effective than I’d expected.
Pixar is very good at making an audience care about things that they normally wouldn’t: What if toys, cars, monsters, fish, robots, bugs, dumplings, or rats had feelings? What if feelings had feelings? Keeping with that tradition, Onward manages to convey an extraordinary amount of emotion through just a pair of legs, which becomes a driving character with a minimum of communication.
Josh: I felt bad for the mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Her sons were like “We’re not going to have time to bring him back to her,” and I thought, Aw, that’s sad. She hasn’t seen her husband in 16 years. She probably has a lot to say to him. And then never gets the chance.
Arley: I felt like she was more invested in it for her sons than for herself. It was a story about sacrifices, on a lot of levels.
Josh: Good point. Also good that she had involvement in the plot instead of just waiting around to hear what happened to her kids. That’s true of a lot of characters. Even the cop had involvement. There were at least five characters with little story arcs, and none of them feel rushed or truncated.
Arley: Everybody did a solid job with voice acting. I don’t think anyone was incredible, like Into the Spider-Verse, but nobody was bad. I was able to fall into the movie and buy into their characters. While the writing of the plot was intricate and kind of incredible in some ways, I don’t feel like the writing of the characters necessarily called for any incredible, stand out performances. It was all right on the money.
Strong secondary characters aside, the focus of the film is clearly the Lightfoot brothers, Ian and Barley. Ian begins as a timid highschooler whose major obstacles are making friends and learning to drive. He’s never met his dad, but keeps hearing stories about him, like some figure of legend made mundane. College-aged Barley is the perfect ’80s slacker fantasy-obsessed metalhead, from the button-laden denim vest, down to the beater van with the unicorn painting on the side. (Never mind the fact that, in his world, unicorns are common nuisance pests.)
The big-brother/little-brother dynamic shifts into overdrive as the quest unearths their fondness for and frustration with each other. It never descends into pointless squabbling, fortunately, and the characters work well as a team, finding new strengths in themselves and in each other. Eventually, even the purported entire reason for their journey — their father — takes a back seat to the story of the two of them.
Josh: I immediately felt for Ian because he was constantly thwarted while trying to get breakfast (just like Birds of Prey), and he has a literal checklist of wants.
Arley: Which is so great! One of the many meta elements of the movie. Character goals, up front.
Josh: Barley had some of Chris Pratt’s quirks and smirks, so you could actually map some of the actors to the animated characters, which was what provided the most humor for me.
Arley: I thought he did the best job.
Josh: Better fantasy than I expected. I enjoyed being in this world.
Arley: Yeah. Honestly, the ads put me off. It looked so boring and trite in previews. Especially thinking about how we desperately need the innovative and new in cinema; it just looked really generic. But it proved to be surprisingly enjoyable after all.
There is a strong message about remembering and respecting the past, with the added idea of craftsmanship and care versus convenience — that the easiest path is not necessarily the best path. The Quests of Yore game bridges their modern world with an epic past; the resurrection spell closes the gap between them and their father, erasing all the years since his death; and Onward provides a bridge for us into a world where magic still exists. And yes, there are literal invisible bridges, too.
Directed by: Dan Scanlon
Written by: Dan Scanlon, Keith Bunin & Jason Headley
Starring: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Kyle Bornheimer, Lena Waithe, Ali Wong, Grey Griffin, Tracey Ullman, Wilmer Valderrama, George Psarras & John Ratzenberger
JOSH PEARCE, Assistant Editor, started working at Locus in 2016. He studied creative writing at SFSU and has sold short stories and poems to a variety of speculative fiction magazines. Born and raised in the Bay Area, he currently lives in the East Bay with his wife and son and spends way too much time on Twitter: @fictionaljosh. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.
ARLEY SORG, Associate Editor, grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and usually writes in local coffee shops. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he is soldering together a novel, has thrown a few short stories into orbit, and hopes to launch more.
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