What Pixar's 'Onward' Is Missing

ONWARD - Still 1 - Berlin International Film Festival - H 2020
Courtesy of Disney / Pixar
The studio has explored the magical arena but has never fully committed to it.

[This story contains spoilers for Onward.]

Pixar’s new film Onward begins with a particularly exciting notion: that magic is real. At least, in the world of the film, magic is real as we see in an opening montage. Mythical creatures like goblins, trolls and elves all co-exist in this world, bringing a wealth of fantasies to life, as they create fire with a wave of a staff or make fireworks appear in the sky with a snap of the fingers. Yet by the end of the montage, it’s revealed to the audience by an unseen narrator that the ways of magic are now a relic. Once these mythical beings discovered electricity, they tossed magic to the side in favor of building a world that looks an awful lot like our own. That decision sets the majority of Onward in motion, but sets Pixar back. Opening up a world of magic before quickly closing it is a disappointing missed opportunity for the studio.

We later realize that the narrator in the opening section of Onward is writing a letter to his sons, to be opened when the younger of the two turns 16. Those sons, Barley and Ian (voiced by Chris Pratt and Tom Holland, respectively), are fairly adrift when we meet them, precisely because their letter-writing dad has been dead for more than a decade. Ian, in fact, never met his father. Ian has grown up to be kind but awkward and painfully shy, unable to even invite over prospective friends to a party at his house. Barley is the opposite, a brash and bold type who’s unable to shy away from any challenge, whether or not he should. Upon Ian’s 16th birthday, their mom presents the two boys with their late father’s letter and a special gift: a spell that will enable them to conjure him from the dead for a 24-hour period. Unfortunately, Ian (the only one of the two who can actually perform magic, as they quickly learn) is unable to fully complete the spell: Their dad’s bottom half appears, and they have to race to find a Phoenix Gem, which will let them finish the spell before the sun sets.

While magic does exist in Onward, it’s made clear with the reveal of this powerful spell — one that Ian and Barley’s mom didn’t even realize was something her husband was gifting their kids — that magic is in very short supply. Barley is a superfan of a Dungeons and Dragons-style role-playing game, with the twist being that the game’s characters and spells are rooted in the history of the world in which the two brothers live. But it’s equally important that basically no one treats magic as being viable anymore. At one point on their ticking-time-clock journey, Ian and Barley encounter a group of motorcycle-riding fairies, with our heroes inadvertently getting on their bad side by mocking them for no longer using the wings that sprout from their backs.

The fact that magic exists in Onward is what makes the choice to treat it as a myth to many of its characters frustrating. Director and co-writer Dan Scanlon was inspired by his own life to tell this story — his father died before he was born, and years later, he was given an audiotape of his old man saying “Hello” and “Goodbye.” (In the film, Ian also has an audiotape with his father speaking on it, though with enough dialogue that the boy can pretend he’s having a conversation with his dad.) The reality and gravity of this situation could have been leavened by not only fantastical creatures, but the magic they perform. Though Ian gains in self-confidence (and thus, the ability to perform magic) by the end of the pic, magic itself is mostly on the periphery.

This is, to be fair, a problem that’s not unique to Onward among Pixar’s recent films. The studio often blends the fantastical with the functional, sometimes to much better creative success. The 2017 film Coco is a great recent example, taking a truly fantastical premise and then showing us how the dead must work through bureaucratic procedures to travel to the land of the living. Even the exemplary Incredibles movies balance superhuman powers with a perception that to be superhuman is to be dangerous, so it’s best to hide those powers. What would be ideal is simple — if Pixar was able to fully lean into its fantastical premises, no longer bogging them down in the vagaries of the human world.

Onward, because it’s a Pixar film, isn’t entirely a wash. Pratt, no longer hemmed in by live-action, gets to revive the same charming and slovenly spirit he exemplified when playing Andy Dwyer on TV's Parks and Recreation, delivering the film’s best performance. Some of the visuals, too, are quite impressive, including the funny and terrifying final challenge, a dragon made up of the debris of Ian’s high-school building. But Onward starts with a promise that it never really resolves. Throughout the pic, there’s a running undercurrent of mythical creatures realizing that they should strike a balance the way Pixar films themselves do, not entirely shirking magic in favor of more humanlike inventions. But it takes until the end of the film for characters to embrace this realization, meaning that a world where magic ostensibly could exist seems too human for its majority. Onward has the ingredients to be a truly magical movie from a studio that may want to start angling away from its traditional storytelling model. If only those ingredients were put together to weave an enchanting new spell.