Ian and Barley Lightfoot, the two brothers who share the spotlight in Onward, are elves living in a world inhabited by various mythological creatures that – much like their own species – have been historically tied to magic. However, the pixies, cyclopes, centaurs, goblins, and manticores that appear on screen in yet another remarkable Pixar creation exist in a society in which the art of enchantments is gone. Magic was there once; but, as explained by the movie’s introductory sequence, the hardships involved in mastering it caused it to be overtaken by technology, and once flicking a switch to bring forth light proved to be more practical than using a wand and uttering flowery words, the people flocked to the former solution. Little by little, then, spells became obsolete due to the emergence of all sorts of devices and machines.
As such, Ian and Barley Lightfoot actually live a life that is absolutely mundane. They share a suburban house with their mother and a dog-like pet whose design resembles a small dragon. They go to a school that is very much normal. And while Ian is a focused young man who worries about his future as he comes to the end of his high school days, his older brother has taken a sabbatical year before college; an occasion he seems to be using to play a whole lot of that universe’s version of Dungeons & Dragons, which turns out to be – as he states – a historically accurate portrayal of their world before the disappearance of magic.
On Ian’s birthday, however, their routine takes a turn for the exciting when their mother reveals the boys’ father – who died because of an unmentioned disease when Ian had yet to be born – left them a mysterious gift before his passing; one that they were meant to get when both of them were over sixteen. Upon opening the package, the family is shocked to find not only a magic staff and a powerful gem, but also a spell that – as explained by a note written by their dad – would bring him back from the dead for a full day. As the house’s magic buff and proclaiming magic can only be performed by those with a gift, Barley gives it a shot but fails, much to their bitter disappointment. Later at night, though, a disheartened Ian, who has always desperately dreamed of getting to know his father, casually says the enchanted words in sadness and notices a reaction in the gem. After picking up the staff, he succeeds in bringing his father to life.
Sadly, the magic gem needed to do the trick breaks midway through the process, causing only the man’s legs to make it to the realm of the living. Using his knowledge of magic and historically accurate role-playing games, Barley declares they should go on a quest after another gem to complete the spell. Knowing they only have twenty-four hours left before their dad disintegrates, the boys hop onto Barley’s old van, leave their mom a message saying they will return with a mighty surprise, and hit the road.
In the entirety of the Pixar canon, there has never been a movie as blatant in its influences as Onward. Mostly, the company’s audiences have been greeted by stories and premises that do one spectacular job in terms of concealing an inevitable nature of every creative work: that many of their core ideas come from somewhere else. That trait, in turn, has always gone a long way towards making Pixar a juggernaut of original products. With Onward, that obviously does not apply, but the fact Pixar has never been clearer about where they are borrowing concepts from does not actually harm the movie, as its inferior level of originality makes one curious about how the company will perform when tackling a very specific niche with established tropes: the road movie genre.
One could argue that Pixar had already done something of the sort with The Incredibles, as the folks in the studio sat down to create a superhero movie. But by making the powerful characters of that film confront the inescapable dullness of their human nature, and all the trappings that come with it, the flick strongly broke from the usual mold of the genre. Onward, contrarily, sits comfortably in the structure of the style to which it belongs, therefore opening the way to fair criticisms regarding how it does not try too hard to be inventive. Nevertheless, the fact remains that it is at least intriguing to, for once, watch Pixar navigate a myriad of cliches.
Onward plays out just as one would expect. As they hit the road, Ian and Barley come across a good deal of trouble, including a few brushes with the police. Armed with valuable additional information, their mother will follow right behind them once she realizes what is happening, giving birth to a two-way race that gives the movie not one, but a pair of sources of tension. Furthermore, with the clock ticking down on the family and with some being unable to understand the urgent nature of their quest, viewers will have plenty of nervous moments to experience, as the world seems to put extra effort towards slowing the trip down. Finally, since the brothers’ clashing personalities generate the always important internal conflict, Onward – in time – shows that the only way Ian and Barley will get to the end of their journey before it is too late is by understanding one another.
If for structure Onward takes a page out of the road movie tradition, for part of its humor the picture takes a look at one unexpected source: the comedy classic Weekend at Bernie’s. To hide the fact there is a weird and sentient pair of legs walking around, the boys make a torso, a head, and a pair of arms out of a lump of clothes, throwing in some sunglasses as a humorous and necessary finishing touch. And with their father (or what there is of him) unable to see or talk thanks to the fact the whole upper half of his body is missing, they are forced babysit him throughout their highway shenanigans, just like Larry and Richard had to do with Bernie in the 1989 film from which Onward draws.
It goes without saying that none of the flick’s influences reach the screen without going through a significant creative filter. The road movie quirks, which turn Onward into Pixar’s most relentlessly thrilling ride, as viewers are given little time to breathe after the boys jump into the van, are always underlined by the wonders of magic; more specifically, by the fact that magic and all elements that surround it are not dead, but merely buried under the boring and resigned corner that the world dug itself into. From that idea, Onward extracts everything from visual gags to the development of major storyline events, and the latter factor is greatly responsible for adding the usual inventive Pixar twist to a structure that would otherwise be too formulaic.
Likewise, although it does get plenty of physical slapstick humor out of the condition the boys’ father is in, Onward also knows how to explore that situation quite well to unearth truly touching moments. And that is another point in which the movie thrives greatly.
The grand message carried by Onward is delivered via a majestic emotional twist that carries a load worthy of the best scenes ever delivered by Pixar; the ones that make audiences forever remember exactly how they felt when they saw it and that have turned many of the company’s features into unforgettable pieces of cinema. If cynically stripped down to its bare essence, though, the surprising turn of events ends up being somewhat clichéd, since it has – either lightly or emphatically – been delivered by road movies over and over again throughout the years. But Onward handles it so tastefully, delicately, and creatively that it makes remaining aloof to it a nigh impossible task; it is, after all, easy to be removed from the land of cold analyses when the writers seem to know all the good tricks and shortcuts that lead to the heart.
Ultimately, that is certainly the greatest gift of Onward: its unbelievable ability to distract one from realizing how conventional it is deep down. And Pixar pulls it all off so well that they are actually bound to make many viewers genuinely and fairly believe in far more than that, as some will conclude the story of Ian and Barley is one of the best they have ever produced. It is part deception, part heart, part creativity, and part experience. And with these tools in hand, the company digs itself out of the artistic dead-end that Onward seemed to be in concept. Deliberately or not, it was a position in which Pixar put itself when they opted to assemble their own twist on the trope-ridden road movie genre. And from that tight starting point, it is hard to argue they could have done it any better. Whether it was a self-imposed test or a twist of fate, they passed it with flying colors.