If there is one thing that animation powerhouse Pixar is justifiably famous for, it’s the ability to invest its animated features with a metric ton of meaning and emotion in every frame.
Films like the Toy Story franchise, UP, Inside Out are so well-loved and highly-regarded not just because they are visually delightful and brilliantly entertaining, but because they tell us a little bit more about who we are, what and who matters to us, and how we cope in their absence.
Pixar’s newest release and instant classic Onward, the cinematic release of which was truncated alongside so many other films by COVID-19, is a perfect exemplar of their near-infallible craft.
An urban fantasy that takes us to a world which was once rich in magic, wonder and the gloriously unexplained, where wizards commanded the elements, unicorns roamed freely and sprites and elves lived lives well beyond the ordinary, but which is now blighted by ennui, grime and a sense of futility and lack of purpose.
Where once unicorns gamboled through high pastures next to centaurs and fauns, they now forage in garbage and fight over spilt trash cans, while whimsical, small sprites have lost the ability to fly, becoming bikies who have taken up crime and prefer terrorising to innocent mischief-making.
Oh, there are cars and lights and refrigerators and all the mod cons of a world that is materially on the up-and-up but the cost of these convenient advances has been the warmth and vivacity of everyone souls, a Tolkienesque message which infuses Onward throughout its tight and well-used 103-minute running time.
The world-building alone is worth the price of admission with great attention paid to constructing a world which looks very much like our own, with all the blessings and curses that come with it, and which promises so much materially but leaves a lot to be desired spiritually and emotionally.
Slap bang in the midst of this richly-realised world live brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt respectively) who together with their mum Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) eke out fairly ordinary but mostly happy lives.
Where Ian is timid and fearful of just about everything, afraid to approach people who are ideally-suited to be close friends and scared to drive even though he’s at an age where getting your license is an almost obligatory rite of passage, older brother is garrulously enthusiastic, unafraid of anything, devoted to his van Guinevere and convinced that the magic of old, which he roleplays in Quests of Yore, is very much still around even if no one believes in it anymore or uses it.
They are polar opposites and not especially close until Ian’s 16th birthday when his present from his long-dead dad turns out to be a wizard’s staff, delighting and thrilling Barley beyond measure (he puts the capital “E” in Exuberance) and frightening Ian who can’t believe he is one spell away from meeting his dad who died before his youngest son was born.
The deal is that they get 24 hours with their dad but only if they successfully use the Visitation Spell which can’t be repeated once it’s enacted; they get partway there, bringing their father’s legs back to the land of the living but the rest of his body falls prey to what can only be described as a wanding short circuit.
This sets in motion a laughter and tension-filled tale in which the two brothers set off to find the magic stone that can complete the spell, bring their dad wholly back and give their family a precious moment of never-to-be-repeated togetherness.
It is, as you’d expect, a highly-entertaing journey.
The fact that Ian and Barley’s dad is only a pair of legs is played for a seemingly endless amount of Weekend at Bernie‘s gags, drawing a huge amount of laughs alongside Barley’s endless capacity for bighearted optimism and belief in the existence and power of magic, and Ian’s fear that none of it is true (despite every indication to the contrary including his own mastery of the wand which emerges throughout the film).
Throw in sight gags aplenty with a manticore (person/lion/scorpion) coming to grips again with her innate magical wildness in the middle of her family friendly G-rated restaurant and Laurel in hot pursuit of her two sons as they go on an increasingly magical quest that defies the freeways and signs of modernity it passes over and through, and you have in Onward a very funny film indeed.
The genius of Pixar, and it’s very much in winning evidence here, is its gift for mixing in a tremendous amount of deeply moving resonance and heart into this visual and verbal feast of comedy.
For all its laughs, Onward really hits you right in the feels; deeply, tremendously, poignantly so.
We witness in amidst all the laughs, Barley and Ian coming to appreciate what is unique and special about each other, what makes their family so wonderful despite the absence of their dad, and how much they might have lost but how much they have gained even in his much-lamented absence.
It is impossible not to watch the final scenes, especially if you have lost someone special recently or long so (let’s face it the pain might fade but the grief never really goes away; not fully anyway) and be moved beyond measure by a film that doesn’t manipulate your emotions as much it simply shows the honest, unvarnished truth of pain and loss, letting your emotions do what comes naturally.
Onward, directed by Dan Scanlon, might not be up there among the towering greats of the Pixar pantheon such as Toy Story and Up, but it is close, so very close, bolstered by humour and heart in equal measure and an understanding that while we all need some magic in our lives and should be open to things beyond the ordinary, that true richness in life comes from knowing who truly we are, not being afraid to be that person, and valuing the people you have in your life (here or gone) who are, when all is said and done and wands have been waved, the ones who really give our lives purpose, vigour and the kind of everlasting magic you don’t need to be a wizard to possess.