By Sam Howe
With the general worldwide release of Pixar’s latest film “Onward,” starring Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, I wanted to write about how the film succeeds by uniquely and realistically presenting the dynamics of a single-parent family, specifically one where a parent passed away when the children were young.
For almost the entire time they have been making films, Pixar have not just been trying to tell good and commercially viable stories, but have also been determined to present their audience (which is very often made up of lots of children who are still learning their way in the world) with important life messages, while also simultaneously making the adults in the audience sob with tears. Some of the more famous successful examples are “Up,” where our character gradually learns to love again and realizes that it is the relationships we make that make life so special. In “Finding Nemo,” we are taught that if we live life in fear then it will only be a life half lived. And the “Toy Story” franchise has consistently taught us the value of friendship, family, and accepting change.
*This post may contain spoilers for “Onward” for people who wish to go into the film without knowing some story details.
However, Pixar has also been accused of slightly losing their focus recently by trying each time to make the audience cry more than the last time (and while you can certainly debate if this is actually true or not) I would say that they have in recent years started to put message above story in an unnatural way, that eventually lessens the impact of both. This is until “Onward,” for with this film they have returned to their best, where a powerful story and set of characters are put first, and the important message behind the film is therefore allowed to naturally reveal itself in a powerful and cathartic fashion.
The basic premise of the film is that two brothers, who live with their mother and have very few memories of their father, are given the opportunity to bring him back to life for 24 hours. However, after the spell goes wrong, they must go on a quest to find the objects that will allow them to bring him back in time before the day is over, so he can see the men they have become.
This sounds like a classic Pixar set up that is designed to allow for some fantasy action, humor, and a chance to pull on the heartstrings, and while I was interested, I wasn’t particularly expecting anything special from this film. However, by the time the film had finished, I was completely taken aback and filled with emotions. “Onward” had used its platform to realistically show the way of losing a parent at a young age can impact someone’s life, in every way imaginable. This film is largely based (the core of the story, not the magic and pixies, obviously) off of the real-life experiences of director Dan Scanlon, who lost his father at a young age and never really knew him, and the only way he could get an idea of who the man had been, was by finding photos/videos/recordings and trying to piece it all together, and this therefore inspired “Onward.”
As well as Scanlon, I also feel a very personal connection to this story as someone who also lost a father very young and grew up in a single-parent family with a sibling and mother, and I feel the family dynamic presented here is one that is very rarely shown so realistically and optimistically. The two boys have had an entirely happy childhood in a nice house, with a kind parent who does everything for them, and have not gone lacking for anything. While sometimes single-parent families can really struggle with the loss of a parent (everyone struggles immensely, some are just better able to deal with it) leading to unhappy lives, I feel this relentlessly negative dynamic is always shown and it is simply not the case for all people, and the reality is that many children still grow up having had incredibly happy childhoods, often due to the under-appreciated parents and family members, and this is something “Onward” brilliantly explores.
In many of these sorts of films, the mother character is often side-lined and only re-appears towards the end of the film once the story is essentially over. However, this is not the case here, even though the film is advertised as just a road trip between the two brothers, there are actually two stories happening at the same time, as Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) teams up with a legendary warrior to find and save her sons from a curse that they don’t know they are about to activate. Throughout the film, there are jokes about this regular suburban mum being a ‘superhero’ but towards the end of the movie, in her children’s moment of need, she is there to protect them whatever the cost. This mirrors the real-life ways mothers save their children every day, even in the most seemingly ordinary of situations, proving themselves to be everyday superheroes.
Throughout the film, our protagonist Ian (Tom Holland) is trying to figure out all the things he wishes he could’ve done with his father throughout his childhood, and during the journey, often struggles with how he feels about his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) who has some unusual interests but is always there at Ian’s side, trying to help him in any way possible. Ian creates a list of things he wants to do with his dad if he can ‘bring him back’ and that he never got to do throughout his life, but in a key moment near the film’s climax, Ian has a realization that leads to everything in his life making sense, throughout the life he has been wishing he had a father to do these things with, his brother Barley was doing them all with him. Barley had the heart to hearts, taught him how to swim, how to catch, and spent his life with him, because he didn’t want his little brother to grow up without a father figure. It is a really surprising way to take the narrative that seemed set as the only way Ian could be happy was magically bringing back his father, but it instead gives us a realistic and truly cathartic pay off.
That is the key thing that I believe Scanlon wanted to portray in this film, and that is an emotion I certainly echo, that despite losing a parent at a young age, it doesn’t mean you automatically have a bad childhood, it just means you grow up with a certain hole in your life that you can’t quite explain, but in this vacuum, there’s the place for other people to step in (usually other members of the family) to fill it and shape you in ways you never even imagined could happen.
“Onward” is a movie about magic and fantasy, but at its heart, it is about family, and that is why it succeeds.
You can follow Sam and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @SamHowe14