Cinematic Releases: ‘Aloft Alevar!’: Onward (2020) - Reviewed

A key early scene in Disney/Pixar’s Onward finds the younger of two elf brothers, sixteen-year-old Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), wistfully listening to a cassette tape featuring the voice of his late father, Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer) and interacting with it in a fantasy scenario he has obviously played out hundreds of times. Having not been born when Wilden died, Ian has never really been able to share his life with his dad – a fact which hurts and frustrates him, especially as he is nothing at all the way his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) or his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) describe the person his father had been. Director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) took this specific scene from his and his brother’s own experience, and as one of the first scenes we really get to know Ian for who he is inside and his motives for the rest of the film’s action, it oozes raw, maudlin emotion.

The world of Onward is one in which magic is real, but has been largely forgotten and eschewed in favor of science. But even dormant magic still exists, and, indeed, the Lightfoot patriarch had himself been a genuine wizard, believing that one day, his boys would grow up to take on the challenges of a spell that would bring him back for a single day so that he could meet Ian and see Barley while old enough to retain more than a few vague memories of him. When Laurel gifts the brothers with their father’s staff and phoenix stone, Barley assumes that, as the resident fantasy expert, he will be the one to wield it – but it is Ian who hides the gift of magic in his heart, and when the spell goes awry and only Wilden’s legs are conjured, the two young elves must go on a quest straight out of Barley’s Dungeons and Dragons expy fantasy game to rectify it if they are to meet their father in whole before time runs out and he disappears completely again.

It’s difficult to balance the mundane with the extraordinary, but Scanlon and his team have created a fantastical city of elves, sprites, Cyclopeans, manticores, centaurs, dragons and all kinds of other mythical creatures that live in a bland modernity based on our own world. The veins of magic that still run through this land are uncovered in microcosm, as characters discover what gifts from their ancestors they can use in a technologically modern world. This makes for a lot of really interesting and fun animation, as the old world begins to seep back into the lives of ordinary creatures. Much as in Adventure Time or Steven Universe, science and magic elements coexist and work together to build up the characters and help them grow and learn about themselves.

But it isn’t the magic that makes Onward special, despite its clever use of questing roleplay games to map out its central story. At its heart, this is a film about dealing with loss and lifelong grief, about how “when you’re on a quest, you use what you’ve got” – and applying this simple notion to life itself. As Ian and Barley embark upon their quest, bizarrely dragging their father’s disembodied legs along with them, Ian begins to understand the true nature of his grief, and the coping mechanisms he and Barley have both built for themselves to unearth their personhood in a world without their father to guide them.

Onward is really about the ways we deal with the empty spaces in our lives – and how, when we see an opportunity to bring closure to some old and ongoing hurt, we will do whatever it takes to get there. The quest is finding the magic within us that allows us to survive even the deepest wounds, the spells we use daily to cope with feelings of inadequacy and incompleteness. Although the Lightfoot brothers are elven, their fraternal struggles and the bonds of love that tie them to one another and to their parents are very much human. The realizations Ian and Barley make as they try frantically to regain something precious that was lost to them prove to them what they actually have, and why that loss was so monumental for each of them.

Pixar’s canon has definitely had films with more ambitious storytelling and better defined characters, but the emotional beat that drives the heart of their best movies is nonetheless evident in Onward. It is a chanted levitation spell to elevate the soul, and to reflect back upon its audience the very nature of mourning loss and gaining bonds of trust for the self, and for those who support us and love us through the deepest wells of our sadness.

--Dana Culling