Disney Pixar’s Onward is magical in more ways than one

Photo: Onward.. key art.. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Onward.. key art.. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved. /

Disney Pixar casts a wondrous spell with its latest venture, Onward, a tale of two brothers, a magic staff, and the bottom half of their deceased father.

Onward is for nerds. I mean that with my whole heart and soul, and it’s honestly such a breath of fresh air into a culture that was on fire over Birds of Prey vs. Sonic the Hedgehog(Yes, you did read that right, and yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds.) Disney Pixar took the conceit of magical beings having lost touch with magic due to modernity and spun a tale about family, belief in one’s own abilities, and looking to the past to inform your way forward, not hold yourself back.

Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) are given a gift by their father, Wilden Lightfoot (Kyle Bornheimer), that any child who has lost a parent they loved would be overwhelmed by and grateful to receive. On his 16th birthday, Ian is given a magic staff that his father had set aside for him and his brother to use. The staff has the power to bring their dad back into their lives for 24 hours, from one sunset to the next. The gesture is reminiscent of children who have received letters, videos, or tapes on a specific birthday from a parent no longer with them but it goes a step further thanks to magic.

This, of course, would be a very short film if things went according to plan. They do not. The spell that must be cast only brings back half of their dad … the bottom half. But Barley, being an export in Quests of Yore (a nod to Magic: The Gathering) knows exactly what they need to do: go on a real-life quest to retrieve another phoenix gem in order to complete the spell. It is an adventure that Ian — the younger, more introverted, and more easily scared of the two brothers — would definitely not be a part of if this weren’t his only chance to spend some time with the father he never got to know.

Onward does a beautiful job of exploring the difficulties inherent in being the child that has no memories of a parent that was lost in comparison to the child that at least has a few. Ian and Barley, fortunately, do not fall into the cliched trap of resentment that could form in the reality of their circumstances. But there is an awareness to their differences in that regard that is appreciated. They share a similar pain, but how that pain has informed who they are and have grown into as young elves differs and shapes their sibling dynamic.

Though that’s not to say there isn’t tension between the brothers at times in the film. Barley is bombastic and supremely individual. He is unlike any other character in Onward and is the embodiment of nerdom in his excitability when it comes to his knowledge of magical history, spells, and quests.

In contrast, Ian is quiet and seeks personal connection, but struggles with being comfortable with himself and has no interest whatsoever in the “days of yore.” He just wants to meet his dad and will do what he has to achieve that goal. But fanciful quests aren’t his forte, and if there’s a straightforward way of going about getting the gem, then that’s the path he’d like to choose.

So, their clash is inevitable, but the resolution is a means of growth for both brothers that allows them to share thoughts they’ve kept hidden, unearth feelings they’ve concealed, and reach revelations they might not have had had they never gone on the quest together.

But Ian, Barley, and their father’s legs aren’t the only ones on an adventure. Their mother, Laurel Lightfoot (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), unbeknownst to them, is hot on their trail and is on a quest of her own to keep them safe. Laurel is one of the most active mothers I’ve seen in a children’s film. She’s not a footnote in the overall film or a bland ornament that serves cookies and doles out sound advice at the drop of a smile. She isn’t there to be an obstacle the boys need to overcome or a nice enough character that’s good in the film but forgettable by the time you exit the theater.

Laurel is engaged in her son’s lives but doesn’t have her entire character boiled down to their wants and needs while she frets in the kitchen and other people handle the tangled web of their situation. She’s a single mom who’s a workout warrior with a cop boyfriend, a pet dragon, and a happy life. She isn’t bogged down by grief over the loss of her husband or pining away for the future that was stolen from them by sickness. But she does speak fondly of Wilden and gently and kindly helps her sons navigate a grief they all share.

And, in an unexpected team-up between her and The Manticore (Octavia Spencer), Laurel is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to battling the curse that befalls those who pluck the phoenix gem from its resting place. Rest assured no cop, no boyfriend, and no flight-challenged warrior of yore turned business owner is going to stop her from saving her boys.

But the real quest in Onward — and this is arguably true about all quests — is a search for understanding of self, one’s strength, and the new perspectives that can be derived from others to reach heights of growth one cannot reach on their own. If there’s anything to take away from the film, it’s that believing in yourself is not only important it’s also essential in learning how to become the person you’re meant to be.

With that message in mind, it would be remiss of me not to talk about the inclusion of Officer Specter (Lena Waithe), Disney’s first openly gay character, in Onward. I’ve written before about there not being a standard when it comes to laudable efforts of LGBTQIA+ representation in ABC-Disney’s media. And when I said laudable, I meant representation that deserves an announcement to amplify its inclusion.

There’s a running joke online that every few ventures Disney has its first openly gay character, and the joke exists because news of these firsts are ran with and blown up without attention to whether the character is significant to the plot or simply a reflection of the world. In Specter’s case, she is the latter.

Her inclusion in the film didn’t need an announcement that ran across the web at light speed considering she only has one scene. But it is my hope that there are articles written about her because her scene is significant in that she speaks of the difficulties of being a parent to a child who is not her own — a child who has becomes hers by virtue of being in love with their mother.

Specter is a mom commiserating with Officer Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), Laurel’s boyfriend, about being the addition to a fully formed family. She gives advice and tells him it gets better. The depiction of a gay parent is important. Showing her speaking openly parent to parent is important. Onward‘s director, Dan Scanlon, wishes they had expanded her role, and it’s my wish that we see more characters like her in children’s movies with bigger roles and importance within the story.

LGBTQIA+ people have children. They and their children would love to see their families represented in kid’s media, too, in more than a few words said by a character that has five minutes of screen time. And I think we’ll get there. Hopefully sooner rather than later, but I do think we’re getting there with each incremental step forward.

Final verdict: Go see Onward if you want to be taken on a ride full of magic that centers a pair of brothers who are as humorous as they are heartfelt and a story that’ll have you shedding a few tears along the way.

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What did you think about Onward? Serve up your thoughts in the comments down below!