New Disney movie Onward is so weird it works

In a world before the COVID-19 pandemic grounded the world – in February this year, to be exact – I received an education in Disney.

It wasn’t from a Disney+ marathon, either. I attended Kidscreen Summit, a conference in the USA about the future of children’s television, film, gaming and toys.

You may have to bring out the line, ‘There’s something stuck in my eye,’ on a few occasions.

In one session, two executive directors from Disney Junior outlined their brand pillars: Aspirational Characters, Fantasy and Magic, Music, Heart and finally, Social-emotional Learning.

True to form, Disney delivers these in spades in their latest Pixar collaboration Onward – which has just been released on the Disney + streaming platform.

Now, picture with me, a boardroom full of Disney and Pixar executives discussing the idea for Onward. One of them says, “Imagine a sixteen-year-old boy-elf being gifted with the magic to spend one day with his dad, who died when he was three.”  The other executives cheer, “YES! That’s in-line with our brand pillars!”

Now, if your eyebrows aren’t raised and your stomach hasn’t dropped – like mine did –  you might be steely enough to handle this film …

Onward is set in the fantasy city of New Mushroomton. The story follows two teenage elf brothers, Ian and Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt), who go on an adventure to find the magic to bring back their deceased father.

At the start of the story their dad comes to life, but only partially — in the form of the lower half of his body. The Lightfoots spend the film trying to bring back the rest of their dad’s body.

I know, it’s a weird premise! But the Onward story sucks in the viewer with a brief history and buckets of humour. It’s a fun ride, but not without its triggers to the viewer’s feelings.

If you have kids in your world, I suspect they’ll enjoy the heroic adventure and silliness, but you may have to bring out the line, ‘There’s something stuck in my eye,’ on a few occasions.

One part that choked me up was when the brothers were relaying memories of their dad. I won’t spoil it, but that moment expresses the very heart of Onward. This, along with a few other moments, reminded me of Charlie Mackesy, an artist who wrote and illustrated the children’s book ‘he Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse.

Mackesy’s words and illustrations are particularly poignant given our world’s current state of being and one part of the book, to me, sums up Onward:

“‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’

‘Kind,’ said the boy.”

This is the crux of the film: kindness.

It’s extraordinary to see vulnerability, empathy and kindness in the relationship between brothers Ian and Barley; that’s not the Disney I grew up watching. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a children’s film so beautifully exemplify this for young boys.

In a way, Onward echoes the sisterly themes of Disney’s Frozen and Frozen II. In fact, the emotional vulnerability of the character Kristoff is akin to that of Ian and Barley. A feat worth celebrating. And I could write an essay on Frozen II, but I won’t …

So much of Onward is about fitting in and about perception, expectation and projection.

I grew up watching simple good vs evil Disney stories — The Lion King, The Little Mermaid or Aladdin.

Part way into Onward, I asked myself, ‘Where’s the evil brother? The wicked octopus-woman? The corrupt advisor?’ There was no clear antagonist. But as I looked closer, I realised that in today’s Disney movies, the antagonist comes from within the protagonist in the form of self-sabotage.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Disney movie without a baddie, and we meet them at the end of the film, but the majority of Onward is about the personal battles someone faces in order to overcome inner doubts. And actually, that’s a helpful life lesson—one I often still need to here. And, yes, I am an adult.

The movie’s title, Onward, is not merely an instruction, it’s a declaration of forward motion on social issues for Disney and Pixar. Issues they aren’t afraid to highlight. One subplot follows two adult women who, though defined by their roles in society, shake off their dissatisfaction with the lives they’re living and pursue their true callings. In dramatic Disney form, they also help save the world!

There’s commentary here on how the “magic” of the past has been lost and the film encourages a return to wonders of old. But a notable chunk of ‘new’ is, for the first time in Disney history, there is a brief, direct nod to the LGBTQIA+ community. A female police officer shares one line about her girlfriend — a comment praised by some viewers for its subtlety, but an inclusion also destined to inflame or offend some viewers.

On the whole, so much of Onward is about fitting in and about perception, expectation and projection. Living up to who others believe us to be, instead of growing the confidence to be our best selves. And in moments where hurt is caused through perception and projection, a form of redemption takes shape — through kindness.

For me, one of the most profound moments came at the finale and, again, it is echoed by Charlie Mackesy’s writings: ‘When the big things feel out of control … focus on what you love right under your nose.’

It also reminded me of 1 Thessalonians 5:15-18 – “…always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else. Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Onward is a sound offering from Disney and Pixar and it’s a great conversation starter if you choose to unpack the themes with the kids in your world.

Even as adults, it prompts the opportunity to reflect on our relationships and ask, ‘Am I striving to do good and be kinder to the people in my world? Am I thankful for what’s right under my nose?’

Not a bad set of questions from a Disney and Pixar movie with a main character that’s a pair of legs.

Sam Buckerfield has written scripts for children’s television shows, and for Hillsong Channel. He is also an author and copywriter.

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