Written by Hayley Garden, edited by Kathryn Cooperman
In an article posted earlier this year, I talked about how Brave, despite being a flawed movie with a messy production history, still manages to be compelling and emotionally satisfying. Though it is easy to point out the holes in its narrative structure, the emotional beats land and the character journeys are enjoyable to watch. This could be, in part, because Brave was Pixar’s first movie with a female lead; seeing it on the silver screen was special, despite its flaws. Sadly, Pixar has produced only one original film with a female protagonist since Brave’s release in 2012, 2015’s Inside Out. It is heartbreaking to see that Pixar is still so hesitant to tell stories about women, despite the great strides being made to amplify female voices in other pockets of the film and animation industries. In fact, there are quite a few of Pixar’s films that are fine on their own, but would have made a bigger impact and would stand out more prominently in Pixar’s filmography had there been a female protagonist instead of the typical default male. The film that most noticeably suffers from this is 2020’s Onward.
Onward is a perfectly fine film. Not Pixar’s greatest, but not their worst by any means. As Pixar’s first release of the 2020s, after a decade largely bogged down by mediocre sequels, it should have been a stunning return to form. As it stands, Onward is an average fantasy animated comedy with some Emotional(ly manipulative) Pixar Magic sprinkled in throughout the story. Onward takes place in a suburban Dungeons and Dragons-inspired fantasy land, where magic once existed but was ultimately eliminated in favor of the growth of modern technology. The film focuses on two elven brothers, Ian and Barley Lightfoot, as they go on a crazy adventure just to spend one more day with their late father. Ian is a shy teen who struggles with self-confidence and worships his father, and Barley is an enthusiastic yet unreliable role-playing gamer. On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, he is given his father’s magic staff, and a spell that gives him the ability to resurrect his father for one day. When Ian tries to perform the spell, it goes awry, and only half of the father is formed. Ian and Barley then embark on a traditional adventurer’s quest in a vain attempt to revive the other half of their father, and ultimately learn that they don’t need to bring back their dad; their relationship with each other is enough. Throughout all of this, Ian and Barley’s mother, Laurel Lightfoot, goes on a comedic goose chase to find her sons and stop them from using potentially dangerous magic. One of the major themes of Onward is that even though Ian never got to know his biological father, he learns that his brother Barley has always acted as a father figure to him. Ian’s character arc is him coming to terms with the legacy of the father he has never met and how that compares to his older brother’s actions throughout his life.
If I were to describe Onward in one word, it would be unremarkable. This stems from it being yet another story about two brothers with unresolved daddy issues. There are so many movies in Pixar’s back catalogue alone, let alone the rest of film history, about a male character who has a confusing relationship with the concept of fatherhood who spends the story learning to make sense of it. This film would have been significantly more memorable had Ian and Barley been women, and Laurel (their mother) been their single dad instead. In this reimagined version of the film, Onward is about a confused, insecure teenage girl going through a vulnerable period of her life, while navigating the legacy of the mother she’s never met. Her older sister is seemingly unreliable, but over the course of the film, the audience learns that she was the mother figure our teen protagonist always had but never fully appreciated. Meanwhile, the movie’s b-plot would still satisfy Pixar’s inherent need to appeal to boys via a fun road trip quest with the Dad character. The new, gender-swapped Onward covers themes of motherhood, sisterhood, and the complex existence of being a teen girl. Compared to Pixar’s previous releases, this would be an astoundingly refreshing and unforgettable release for the studio.
Onward would have been such a triumph had it been a fun fantasy adventure film with underlying themes of navigating life on the cusp of womanhood, and how your relationships with your mother and sister can factor into the confusion. It would have been a benchmark release for Pixar, and it would have assured female viewers that the most famous 3D animation studio in the world is interested in telling complex, nuanced stories about women. Instead, it is an alright entry in the studio’s filmography, outshined by the original films that came before and after.