Disney/Pixar’s Onward opened late last February as COVID-19 began its onslaught in America. It was the last film my family saw in theaters. I remember sitting in the packed audience being (a notorious germaphobe) slightly nervous about the possibilities that those around me carried the virus. I wondered if it was even safe taking my kids. That’s the atmosphere that plagued the film’s wide rollout.
I think, since then, the film’s reputation has been unfairly judged by its pandemic-decimated box office. Mere weeks into its international rollout, theaters closed, shuttering the opportunity for families to see the film on the big screen. People seem to have forgotten that the film was warmly received by critics even if it didn’t ultimately gross anywhere near Disney/Pixar’s previous efforts.
But a film should never be judged on its box office merits.
An early premiere on Disney+ gave audiences the opportunity to rediscover the magic within the film. Naturally, it would be challenging for any film from any studio to meet the high quality standards of the great Disney/Pixar films of Up, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Finding Nemo, and obviously many others. Yet, Onward’s merits hold it in special class of Disney/Pixar films: it’s an original story told with deeply intense emotional resonance.
The film tells the story of two brothers – Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) – who are given the opportunity to reconnect with their long-dead father on Ian’s 16th birthday. His return, however, is entangled with the lost art of magic, and naturally, there are complications. Ian and Barley only restored their father’s legs. They spend the remainder of the film on a quest/road trip to recover a magic item that will hopefully render him completely.
Disney/Pixar makes a lot of great movies, but many of those great movies are sequels. I’m not complaining, per se, because I love each and every one of the Toy Story movies as much as any 8-year-old child would. They’ve become part of my family’s DNA, so much so, in fact, that my kids refused to give their stuffed animals to Goodwill well beyond respectability.
However, it’s a bit of a rainbow unicorn to see a completely original animated film these days. Onward is one of those original films that emerged in 2020 that deserves a second look. Sure, you could say the story is cobbled together from various fantasy tropes, but given the subject matter, isn’t that the point? Onward is exactly the kind of film that Pixar should be making – wholly original content that gives audiences something new, something not recycled. Soul did exactly that, and I have high hopes for the studio’s upcoming Luca.
Onward’s other major asset is the heart and emotion imbued by director Dan Scanlon. In several interviews, Scanlon shared the film’s origin story. The central plot is an allusion to Scanlon’s own father who died when Scanlon and his brothers were very young children. Given the personal touch, Onward feels organically emotional. It thankfully avoids a sense of manufactured sentiment that plagues so many films. Even if we don’t necessarily cry at the end of the film, we at least feel touched by the connections made on its journey. This, too, is something Disney/Pixar should continue to explore. Soul does that by calling on the experience of its Black filmmakers to ground an otherworldly story of The Great Before. It’s a better film because it leverages real human experience and emotion to create a well told tale.
Here’s hoping future Disney/Pixar films continue in this tradition. To ensure it, we should celebrate films like Onward whenever possible.