I love Pixar. As a child born in the early ’90s, Pixar was just hitting their stride right as I was hitting the target age to enjoy such movies. They had this impeccable way of humanizing things that weren’t human, be it monsters, fish, or toys. They knew how to be fun and imaginative without clinging to the predictable formulas of mainstream Disney, which as you probably know, was having a bit of a rough spot in the early 2000s.
In the 2010s, Pixar had a bit of a fall from grace. Don’t get me wrong, we still got some masterpieces like Inside Out and Coco, but they just weren’t churning out hits with the same level of consistency as the prior decade. All too often Pixar was falling back on sequels and prequels to its earlier films.
Enter Pixar’s first film of the ’20s: Onward. It’s not based on preexisting IP. Our characters are not human, and while this magic world is a cheeky spoof of our own, it’s still a world unto itself. We don’t get a stereotypical villain, just two brothers going on a quest together and learning to appreciate each other along the way.
Onward is beautiful in its simplicity. It’s not trying to reinvent the wheel. The two brothers, Ian and Barley don’t get along particularly well and in many ways are total opposites. Ian is scared of everything and Barley is scared of nothing, giving them a Marlin/Dory dynamic a la Finding Nemo. However, each one has something necessary to complete the mission at hand: Ian was the one actually born with magic powers, Barley is the one who actually knows how magic works. And so they have to rely on each other whether they want to or not. To heighten the stakes, we even have a time limit on how long they can take on their quest.
As one can probably guess, the story is all about these two brothers learning to appreciate each other in new ways. They each end up making sacrifices for the benefit of the other, sacrifices they never would’ve made in Act 1. Yes, in some ways Onward is a bit formulaic, and perhaps I’d be mad if this formula didn’t work so well. Instead, I love that it’s both familiar and fresh. I love that it reminds me of other Pixar films I love, as that hasn’t been a given with other Pixar films over the last decade.
Like many of my other favorite Pixar films, Onward is great for kids, but I also found ways to appreciate in ways younger audiences might not have, or at least wouldn’t be able to articulate. I LOVE the way that magic is explained in this movie. The trick to doing magic properly is trusting your gut. It’s being unafraid of risk. And yet, in this world, magical creatures stopped being magical as soon as technology advanced to the point that it was more convenient than magic. Think about that. Magic is not the easier option if that option requires us to believe in ourselves.
That blew my mind a little bit.
This movie has a powerful message about how oftentimes, we don’t believe in ourselves until we have no other choice. We do not grow without being challenged, and if given the option, many of us will choose not to challenge ourselves. We’ll choose the thing that’s safe and comfortable and comes super easily and lose part of ourselves as we do that.
This is the kind of beautiful message that I wouldn’t have picked up on a kid. However, it’s the kind of thing that makes Onward is more than just a good movie. It gives me hope that Pixar in the ’20s will be more like the Pixar of my youth. Fun and charming, creative concepts, and playing my heartstrings in all the right ways.