Film & TV

The Transcendent Magic of Pixar’s Onward

Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) in Onward (Disney/Pixar)
The animation studio has created a masterpiece about the importance of Higher Things in life.

A lot of movies can make you cry at the end, but a movie that can make you cry in the first 20 minutes? Ah, the Pixar touch. Onward is such a movie, one of the very best Pixar has made, full of comedy with a purpose and pointedly metaphorical action. As with other Pixar offerings, its best feature is in its world-building rather than its characteristically frantic climax, but its foundation of ideas is sublime. Onward gazes into the deepest sources of our collective psyche in anno domini 2020 and cries out movingly against the decadence of our age.

I refer to the somewhat obscure, Jacques Barzun definition of decadence: an era when “the forms of art as of life seem exhausted; the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces. . . . When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.” Oh, and intermingled with the Barzun is a lot of Seth MacFarlane. Recall that Ted imagined a world in which a magical talking teddy bear had become so ordinary over time that he wound up working in a grocery store and smoking weed all day.

Onward takes place in a less profane but more comprehensively enervated iteration of the Ted world, an imaginatively null post-magic society that makes for a nifty metaphorical overlay on our post-religious society. Dragons are just yappy little housepets, and a tavern like the one from The Fellowship of the Ring has become a Chuck E. Cheese. Fabulous creatures — centaurs, manticores — do prosaic jobs: waiting tables, driving police cars. One young fellow, Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Chris Pratt), stands athwart all of this, demanding a return to mystical ways, epic trials, enchantment, meaning, transcendence.

Of Disney’s last big cartoon feature, Ross Douthat wrote, “Frozen 2 comes as close as an hour-and-40-minute kids’ movie can come to uniting every grievance and aspiration, every resentment and ambition, every theoretically in-tension element of the intersectional Left into a single animated master narrative.” Onward is effectively a beautiful rebuttal of that rubbish. It’s so reactionary it practically cries out for a return of the Latin Mass. It’s positively medieval, and absolutely wonderful. I mean both excellent and full of wonder.

Barley and his little brother Ian (Tom Holland) are missing their father, who died far too young and left behind an intriguing item, a staff that suggests he wielded mysterious powers. He was a wizard! insists Barley. No, the boys’ widowed mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) responds, he was an accountant. Via incantation, the boys’ father might be returned to life, yet to complete the job will require an Arthurian journey. So the brothers sally forth in a groovy Seventies-style van in which Barley has covered up the D on his gearshift with an O, so that instead of Drive, he can shift the car into Onward. Barley’s faith in the ineffable is childlike and comical, yet it is his unwavering commitment to the existence of mystical powers that brings them back and makes them relevant again. He is the congregation, and shy, dorky little Ian is the priest who conjures up a bridge (at one point a literal one) between our daily lives and our spiritual selves.

Onward contains multitudes of other movies — Back to the Future, Zootopia, the Indiana Jones series, The Incredibles — but these references aren’t lazy borrowings. They speak to something — see that Barzun remark about endless repetition. Co-written and directed by Dan Scanlon, who previously directed Monsters University and who, like Ian, lost his father when he was a baby, the film casts a waspish gaze on our habits of performative imagination — the Medieval Times restaurants, the cosplay, the Halloween parties for grownups — and finds that they all have the same basis, a continuing human need that there be more to life than what we experience on the surface. We yearn for something more marvelous than the mere everyday. We long to connect with our fathers, to walk in their footsteps.

I can hardly believe I’m typing this, but it’s a movie about patrimony, a word that can hardly be spoken aloud anymore, at least in this country. The last time I came across such a heartfelt consideration of what patrimony means to the wellsprings of a culture, it was in Michael Brendan Dougherty’s book My Father Left Me Ireland. If Michael (or Douthat, or Sohrab Ahmari) had supplied Pixar the idea for this story, I wouldn’t be surprised.

It’s odd that there are ten movies about losing one’s mother for every movie about losing Dad because, as a culture, separation from our fathers is something we’ve achieved on an enormous and devastating scale. Ian makes a poignant little list of things he wishes he could have done with his father, and the list is so starved and basic that it speaks for a huge cohort of children, going back generations, who can barely comprehend what it means to have a father and so imagine that playing catch is where the magic lies. As in Richard Curtis’s 2013 film About Time, the only other recent feature I can think of with a comparable understanding of what fathers and sons mean to one another, Onward recognizes that it’s simply the ordinary days we spend with our fathers that really matter.


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