I recently rewatched Onward so I could take another look into this film. Seeing as it’s finally an original story, after so many remakes and reboots from Disney and Pixar studios, I felt that this deserved a spotlight.
First, here is a link to something I keep in mind when not only reviewing, but writing my own stories. While nostalgia-soaked reboots have been everywhere lately, it’s good to see that Pixar hasn’t totally lost some of their roots. If you read the article I linked to, you’ll see what I’m talking about. It comes down to basic storytelling principles, structure, and reasoning. I think most people, especially writers, have their own preferences or sets of “rules” they have for telling stories, and that can influence our opinions, outlooks, and general feelings about the movies we watch.
I’ll look at a few things: World Building, Characters, and Conclusion, besides my own personal tastes and topics that I like to talk about.
The World Building in Onward had every Pixar-like touch to it. It’s creative, imaginative, and it stuck to a basic fantasy theme. There’s one key ingredient to world building, and that’s consistency. Onward was very consistent. As for the world, the magic and creatures they came up with are proof that this story could have easily taken place in the “olden days,” before modern technology changed the Onward universe into a reflection of our own. Dropping the story into a modern-era adds another layer of conflict and environment that also helps create a lot of jokes. For example, the tavern still being a tavern, but now a kid-friendly restaurant with karaoke and burgers. The visuals are wonderful, the history opens up a lot of possibilities, and there’s another reflection to our world that I personally think is pretty neat. This one may not be intentional, but it still works:
Barely’s fascination with magic and history, something that is slowly dying in their modern world, reminds me a lot of religion in our society today. It’s sad to see so many old stories from the Bible, among other religions, not just forgotten, but not even mentioned to kids, therefore possibly rendering generations practically ignorant of basic cultural references. There are in fact a lot of young people though that still study religions on their own, and admire the roots of modern practices. In the Roman Catholic community, you’ll find a lot of college-age and even younger people fascinated with Latin Mass, which is the way it was for such a long time. Sure, the game Barley played in the movie is also supposed to be like Dungeons and Dragons, but the magic in the Onward universe is very real, making his obsession with the “game,” understandable.
I think that makes for an even better world building, to see how it reflects our modern world so well. Sure, you could argue that it’s strange that they have all of our technology, but it’s easy in this case to say that it’s an “alternate timeline.” If that works for much inferior stories like Lost, then it works here just fine. Yes, I said the show Lost is inferior to this movie. The entirety of Lost. All of it.
It’s easy to whine about the little things, so I’ll go ahead and take a quick moment to do just that, like the petty person that I am. Here are some questions I have. Why didn’t the spell to bring his dad back work the first time? Why are there only a few Phoenix Gems left (pardon me if I called it the wrong thing). Why is there a curse on the gem? Why are only some people able to perform magic and not others? These are things that may not deserve a lot of time devoted to an explanation, but they still do stick out just a bit to me.
Moving on to the Characters. It comes as no surprise that Pixar has given us some great characters. They have a life of their own, and they grow in the stories. Onward is no exception. Though here’s my small, personal issue. I feel that, overall, while Onward is great, it is missing that same heart that something like Finding Nemo had. That may be for a few different reasons, one of the being that Finding Nemo did not have to devote as much time to world building, as it did the characters and their journey. Onward had its hands full, especially because the world building in this setting is actually crucial to the plot, down to the reason the main characters go on their journey in the first place. There is still tragedy and heart, don’t get me wrong. But I can return to some of Pixar’s earlier movies time and time again, while with Onward I may not, aside from watching it with my future nieces/nephews and possible kids. It’s very hard to hit the same marks that their earlier films hit, especially because they were made before computer animated movies were old news. So, you have to do so much more now. Still, Barley and Ian (Chris Pratt and Tom Holland) are great leads, with contrast, goals, and a good relationship. The other characters are good too, even the pixies. I love that they start flying out of desperation, and that just added so much more to the film, from one small moment. I also felt that the movie used visuals to tell backstories, rather than too much explaining. We see pictures of the family, pictures of the Manticore from years before, and flashbacks of Ian and Barley’s childhood. Yes, there is some “telling” with their father, like when Ian happens to meet his dad’s old college buddy in the diner. But seeing as his father has passed away, that’s one of the only ways he can connect to his dad, so it makes sense.
A key to making characters is growth. Your characters need to grow, or at least change. This story is no exception, though I think Ian changes a little more. What Ian wants in the beginning, he realizes that he basically had it. And one lesson, that I think we all know deep down, is that we all have to accept death as a part of life. Magic may be able to bring back someone for a day, but that can’t save people from the ultimate outcome. You can even argue that our memories of our loved ones are in the realm of mystical. Memories are powerful. Ian doesn’t get to see his dad, but he has no memories of his dad. His love for his dad is real, but his love for his brother is, too. This leads to the last point: the Conclusion.
To talk about the Conclusion, I’m actually going to point out the structure of the story, because overall that is what is leading to a finale. I found that there were quite a lot of “convenient” parts of the plot. I don’t really fault it so much, but they are still there. Once you have seen the movie once, when you watch it again you can see that the ultimate destination and the conclusion with Ian, Barley, and their dad, is really shaped by the story, and you can see many obvious “plot conveniences.” But, I’m inclined to think that those can be forgiven when the payoff is a good one. And plots do need to be driven forward, and sometimes coincidences help it along the way.
The Conclusion was very emotional, which is also a very important part of storytelling. You don’t necessarily need a grand or epic quest, and nothing is further proof of that than some of Pixar’s other great stories. Toy Story is about toys. The third movie of that franchise brought out loads of emotional responses. Onward successfully pulled off both; an epic quest and emotion. I cannot fault it for that at all.
To finally see an original movie, emotional connections, and a fun world was refreshing, and thankfully one of the highlights of this quite eventful and sometimes downright gloomy year. While it may not have been the same hit as other Pixar movies, and may not be as remembered as well, it certainly won’t be seen as one of their weaker installments. In fact, I think you could look at it as one of their most special, and epic.