Onward: A Funny, Adventurous Tale about the Bond between Brothers

This one, like all of Pixar's, is not just for the kids.


From Walt Disney Pictures' Pixar Animation Studios, Onward (2020) was released on Friday, April 3rd to the company’s streaming service after only being in theaters for a few weekends. The short release comes from the COVID-19 cross-country sweep that has forced movie theaters to close, barring many from seeing Pixar’s latest. Thankfully, I also recently got Disney+, meaning I most definitely watched Onward the day it came out. And wow, am I glad I did.


Onward tells the tale of two brothers on a quest that will allow the older one, Barley, to reunite with their late father and the younger one, Ian, to finally meet him. While Barley (Chris Pratt) is daring, adventurous, and a little bit of a nerd for fantastical legends and myths, Ian (Tom Holland) is timid, anxious, and largely skeptical of those sorts of things. Yet, upon Ian's 16th birthday, the brothers are given an ancient magical staff as a present from their father. The two realize he’s left behind an even greater gift still— a spell that can bring him back for 24 hours. But unfortunately for them, the Phoenix Gem within the staff is shattered before they're able to finish 'forming' their father. And so the quest begins: retrieve another Phoenix Gem before it's too late!


A unique aspect that I loved about this film was its setting: an urban fantasy. Defined as a sub-genre of fantasy where the story uses supernatural elements in present day society, the best (and easiest) example I can think of is Enchanted starring Amy Adams. Onward sets its story as taking place long after the days where magic reigned supreme, but its traces remain (hence the brothers’ surprise when their father leaves them a wizard’s staff). Part of the film’s excitement is watching as the characters rediscover this magic, especially the manticore, Corey (Octavia Spencer). In days of yore, as Barley would say it, she was a fierce, sword-yielding, fire-breathing beast, but in present day she’s busily tending to her family restaurant to pay the bills. 


Every Pixar film has its heart, and Onward’s can be found in the brothers’ relationship. The two couldn’t be more opposite, as their brotherly strife reaches many turning points throughout the story. But still, the pair prove their need for one another, and the balance is obvious. Where Barley forces Ian out of his comfort zone, Ian serves as the rational voice on Barley’s shoulder. Our main character Ian learns a great deal about himself through this quest, and his transformation is adorably inspiring. 


On top of being inspirational, I hope I’m not going too far by calling this one of Pixar’s funniest films yet. Every twist and turn on the brothers' journey had my entire family and I laughing with every scene. From a once ferocious and mighty manticore turned soft restaurant owner, to aggressive motorcyclist pixies looking for a fight, I guarantee you’ll be laughing too. 


The story also includes an LGBTQ+ secondary character, a cyclops police officer called Specter, voiced by Lena Waithe. Though the reference to her sexuality is a small one, we have to acknowledge that a company so large and influential as Disney is making noteworthy strides toward representation, as her character got the film banned in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, where LGBTQ+ acts are illegal. Hopefully we can see this inclusion increase over Disney's and Pixar's future films. We’re getting there, folks!


Lastly, Onward was especially fun for me to watch as I was lucky enough to be able to hear the film’s Head of Story, Kelsey Mann, speak at a Corcoran event back in February (TBT to when we were allowed on campus.) Mann walked us through the development process all the way through post-production and final edits. He even storyboarded a selected scene for us, giving us an inside look at how an animated film is brought to life through art. 


You can watch Onward anytime with a subscription to Disney+.