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Onward (2020)

Updated: Aug 29, 2022

Ian and Barley sit serenely on the roof of their trusty Chevrolet.
Image credit:

For today’s review, the rrramble team embarked on a quest through the fantastical world of Disney Pixar’s Onward. The film is directed by Dan Scanlon, produced by Kori Rae and written by Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin. The voice actors include Tom Holland (Ian), Chris Pratt (Barley), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Laurel), and Octavia Spencer (Corey).


I went into Pixar’s Onward with low and somewhat biased expectations, founded on online chatter when it was released about censorship, and my dislike of Chris Pratt (who voices one of the protagonists). I geared myself up for disappointment, but instead I found a moving, well-thought-out exploration of grief, the bonds between siblings, and the absolute horror of trying to work out who you are at sixteen.

Onward hinges on the premise of a world where magic is possible but has fallen into disuse given the ease of technology, which was an aspect of the film I really enjoyed. Who doesn’t like the idea of feral unicorns?

The best thing about Onward, I’d say, is how believable the sibling dynamic they’ve created is – I wasn’t surprised to read afterward that it is based upon director Dan Scanlan’s real childhood. Ian and Barley have the kind of frustration, back and forth bickering, and fierce loyalty that I instantly recognised as matching my own sibling relationships. I was relieved to find Onward avoided the stereotypical extroverted bully sibling to shy introverted younger sibling dynamic that is a common trope. It would have been easy for Barley to be overly critical of his brother and the film to follow a redemption arc. Instead, his behaviour is loud, overexuberant and excitable without veering into domineering.

At the end of the day, Onward is still a kid’s film, and it does favour a simplistic approach at times, particularly when it comes to the plot which is fairly predictable. I really felt this when it comes to the police presence in the film, as my main impression was that the creators couldn’t decide how to represent them. The police in Onward are complicit in tearing down ancient monuments, a threat Barley is warned against in the opening scenes, and fill the antagonist role in both a car chase and a traffic stop. Meanwhile, the figure of Officer Colt is shown as well-intentioned and endearingly bumbling. Crucially, there are no real consequences in crossing the police, which Barley, Ian and their mum all do over the course of the film. Don’t get me wrong – I do know this is a children’s film, but I still feel this hesitancy is important to note.

Also noteworthy is definitely the black coding of the Manticore character, who is voiced by Octavia Spencer. I really enjoyed her transition from stressed customer-service employee to fierce creature, but the connotations of her declaring herself “dangerous and wild” while freeing her natural hair didn’t sit well with me. I’d love to know what other people think here, and if my (white) opinion is shared by more diverse viewers.

More in my wheelhouse is the queer censorship that had Onward hitting headlines when it came out, as the throwaway line “my girlfriend’s daughter” from a minor character was changed in various countries to “my partner’s” or even “my sister’s”. This was one of the first things I knew about Onward and as such a small part of the film, I wish it hadn’t absorbed so much coverage. Do I wish Disney didn’t allow this whilst claiming to be a beacon of representation? Yes. Was this the first time this type of thing has happened? No. Will it be the last? Also no.

Onward is a good watch, and it deserves more attention than it has been getting. Fair warning though, especially if like me you can’t hug your siblings at the moment, it will definitely leave you in tears. Happy tears, though (mostly).

Corey the Manticore gripping the map to the Phoenix Gem with a determined look in her eye.
Image credit:


I remember seeing Onward advertised on buses back when I used to actually go outdoors. Now, I’m no Disney stan. You’d have a hard time catching me in the Disney store and I haven’t actually seen all of The Lion King (don’t hurt me) – but I was intrigued by this film. I support high fantasy in all its forms. That, and Tom Holland.

One of my favourite aspects of Onward is the setting: a contemporary city imposed onto traditional, D&D-style fantasy. All the houses are mushrooms. It’s adorable. I love it when high fantasy is used as a vessel for modern content, and even the characters serve this purpose. I’ve seen the try-hard stepdad versus wayward sons before, but I haven’t seen many where one of them is a centaur. Onward is the story of elf brothers Ian (beloved Tom) and Barley (Chris Pratt), who are given a magic gem to resurrect their late father. Unfortunately, they are only able to bring back his lower half. I could almost hear the writers’ room: “but WHAT IF they only get to have his LEGS?”

It isn’t necessarily a dark image when handled by Pixar, but as my sister pointed out with a concerned look on her face, it’s potentially somewhat disturbing. Actually, the whole undead-legs thing is a good metaphor for this film as a whole: it walks an awkward line between quirky kids’ animation, and a means of exploring some serious emotion, i.e. grief.

For the most part, I think Onward balances well on this tightrope. Tom Holland, I mean Ian’s quest to resurrect his whole father takes viewers through an Indiana Jones-esque labyrinth, featuring increasingly disturbing near-death scenarios. “It’s Pixar!” I reassured my sister as they evaded death once more, “they can’t kill an elf.”

Don’t get me wrong, this film is a lot of fun, although I must agree that certain parts of Onward are a bit stressful to watch. If you feel sorry for Scrat the Squirrel in Ice Age, you’ll definitely be affected by the journey of the resurrected legs. I’d personally think twice before showing it to a seven-year-old. It would definitely depend on the seven-year-old. I, for one, needed nearly a whole Lindt chocolate reindeer to calm down.

Especially at the end. Holy heck. I won’t totally give the game away, but I can’t write this review without passing comment on the end. If you’ve seen the film and have thoughts, do contact me. I am keen to discuss.

Frankly, I was astonished. Ian’s personality vanished at the crucial moment. His ultimate goal, and therefore the pinnacle of the story, collapses under its own weight, and the writers appear to simply opt out of creating what could be a really beautiful scene. It’s avoided entirely. The ending is so inconsistent with both Ian’s character and the laws of children’s films that I nearly choked on my chocolate reindeer. After having my nerves shredded, I was at least expecting the ending I was rooting for. Pixar, you really let me down.

That being said, I can understand why it ends in the way it does. It wasn’t what I was expecting by any stretch, but it suitably rounds things off with a bittersweet balance of loss and heart-warming tenderness. Pixar, as ever, tackles themes surrounding grief in a unique and thoughtful way, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t tug my heartstrings. I thoroughly enjoyed shrieking my way through the stressful parts. Ian and Barley are decent company – not least because one of them is actually Tom Holland.

Ian and the bottom half of his dad ‘watch’ the sunset together.
Image credit: Walt Disney Company/ Everett Collection


As a kid, I knew that if I jumped off the sofa just right, my little bare toes would never touch the floor again. The problem, obviously, was that I never got the jump ‘just right’. As teenagers, we’re not built for such delicate air acrobatics, so unfortunately that’s one dream that will have to remain a fantasy (unless someone has a plane and a parachute I can borrow?). But there will always be a voice in my head that wants to try one more time. Onward is a film born from that voice in all of us. It brings us along on a journey to reconsider how we define magic and achieve the extraordinary.

So, what is magic then? According to modern nerd-dom, Dungeons & Dragons takes the cake, but Hermione Granger and Harry Houdini would likely have something to say about that. The mechanic at my local garage exclaimed just last week that magic is the only thing keeping my car running. So I suppose that Onward is perfectly within its rights to decide that magic is a pair of sentient trousers.

Magic, in all its unexplainable pizzazz, is a staple feature of Pixar animations. The film’s D&D character base then surely promises 102 minutes bursting with said pizzazz. For this reason the worldbuilding was my favourite aspect of Onward – for a viewer, it’s obvious that magic is missing from each scene. For Ian and Barley, their missing piece takes the form of their dad, but nearly every character is in some way stuck. Watching a centaur drive is bad enough; a manticore being afraid of the legal system is just too much. These suburban characters are the mystical creatures from our childhood, originally filled with wonder, and whilst they seem to have woefully forgotten that, we certainly haven’t.

Ian and Barley embark on a quest that takes them away from the familiarity of the city into the unknown (apologies for the accidental Frozen II reference). When their endeavour leads them full circle and they end up back at the school, it seems that all hope is lost. But in classic Pixar fashion, it’s all about the journey. The brothers spark change in the characters they encounter that the filmmakers visually code through magic. We’re not surprised that the sprites realise they can fly, but this doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of hearing them angrily squeak, “hey, I’m flying here!”

The clever setting and magic animation excel from a viewing perspective, but ultimately the film’s aim was to present grief in an accessible format for kids. Dan Sconlan, writer and director, based Ian on his personal life experience having lost his father at just one year old. Barley and Ian’s internal quests are less easily coded through magic. Initially, I was annoyed that the film skirted around their dad’s return, but in the context of an allegory for Ian’s grief it makes sense. He has to let go of the father figure he lost to realise the value in his brother. It’s true of real life and thus important to acknowledge that there’s no magical fix for grief.

On the flip side, Barley’s quest is a journey for closure. I wasn’t quite as impressed by this character arc, especially given that magic is framed as the solution to Barley’s regrets. Maybe they were angling for a ‘seize the moment before it’s too late’ sort of thing. Or maybe they needed to keep the running time down. Either way I sobbed into my sleeve so… I guess it worked.

Onward redefines what is magical as the extraordinary in the everyday. That can take the form of a brother or a severe career change into a badass bitch – thank you Octavia Spencer for your stellar vocal acting. It can even look like a very persistent Peugeot 307 that should have fallen apart years ago. The extraordinary is never too far away.


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