The World Of Pixar's Onward Explained

An excerpt from one of the posters for the animated movie Onward (2020) featuring the teenage elf brothers Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Chris Pratt) and Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) standing next to a set of legs from a body that hasn't completed its magical form yet in a street at night

Originally written by Sarah Moran for Screen Rant

Pixar's latest animated movie, Onward, is the story of a fantasy world that's lost its magic, and the two elf brothers who wind up restoring magic to the world. The film is also a personal story about those brothers, Ian and Barley Lightfoot (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt), trying to see their deceased father one more time. Inspired by director Dan Scanlon losing his own father at a young age, Onward uses the structure of the typical fantasy quest to tell a heartfelt story about family, while also referencing iconic fantasy tropes and blending them with a more modern aesthetic.

In Onward, Ian and Barley receive a wizard's staff and a spell left to them by their dead father. The spell will bring him back for just 24 hours, but when they first attempt it, something goes wrong and Ian and Barley only bring back their dad's legs. They then must embark on a quest to complete the spell in time to bring back the rest of their dad before they run out of time and he's again gone forever. Along with Holland and Pratt, Onward also stars Julia Louis-Dreyfuss a Ian and Barley's mother, Laurel, and Octavia Spencer as Corey, a manticore who gives Ian and Barley important information for their quest.

The world of Pixar's Onward is the first true fantasy world the studio has created, pulling inspiration from some of the most recognizable properties in the genre. The movie also presents a different interpretation of a fantasy world, one that's more modern and now without magic. Through Ian and Barley's quest, however, magic begins returning to the world of Onward.


The Origins of Onward's Fantasy World


Onward's fantasy world is a first for Pixar and it pulls its inspiration from such iconic fantasy properties like Lords of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons. In the past, the world is shown to be exactly the kind of setting audiences expect of fantasy stories - medieval, rural, and inhabited by creatures like unicorns, mermaids, and fawns. Pixies can fly, centaurs can run at speeds up to 70 miles per hour, and wizards wield magic, using their power to help others and assist on daring quests. In time, though, new technology and modern conveniences slowly replace the desire to learn magic or the need to fly, and Onward's world begins to lose a bit of its fantasy flavor.

This past, though, is all documented in Quests of Yore - a tabletop role-playing game that Barley and his friends play. Similar to Dungeons & Dragons, the game requires players to create characters and act out adventures, but rather than being entirely fictional, the game is instead based on their world's real history. Unsurprisingly, Barley is well-versed in Quests of Yore, but because of its historical relevance, his knowledge of the game becomes invaluable when Ian and he must set off on a quest that recaptures the magic of the past.


The Rules of Magic in Onward


The reason why magic was so easily replaced by technology in Onward's world is because only those with a gift for magic can learn it, and even then, magic can be difficult to master. Wielding magic also requires a wizards staff, items that are now very rare but still contain the power for magic in every fiber. Spells in Onward have certain requirements that must be met in order to cast them, and the more advanced the spell, the more requirements exist. First, someone must harness their heart's fire when casting a spell, which more or less means they must speak with confidence when casting. This is a requirement for any spell no matter its difficulty.

Related: Why Pixar’s Onward Needs Magic To Tell Its Heartfelt Story

For a more advanced spell, the caster may also need to adhere to an additional magical decree. The growth spell Ian attempts on the gas can, for example, requires him to also focus all of his attention directly on the object he wishes to grow. And lastly, the most advanced spells in Onward's world require the use of an assist element because of the immense power needed to perform such a spell. In the film, the assist element is the phoenix gem that must be used in order to perform the visitation spell left to Ian and Barley by their dad.


The Modern World of Onward

Onward-poster excerpt

As technology became more advanced and the need for magic diminished, Onward's world became less fantastical. In its modern world, there are no longer wizards or daring quests, but the present still bears the influence of the past. This is most obvious in ancient ruins, like the fountain Barley chains himself to or draw bridge, but also in the architecture seen in building with crenelations or homes built from toadstools. In many ways, Onward's modern world is nearly identical to our own, but it's in the details that the world's fantasy past comes through. Various products, for instance, reference both real world items and famous fantasy stories (Mountain Doom, Fruit Runes, Misty Mountain Light, etc.), combining for puns that aren't just funny but reflective of Onward's magical origins.


Onward's Manticore

Onward-Ian, Barley, and Corey The Manticore

The transition that has occurred from the world of Onward's fantasy past to its more mundane present can be best traced through Corey, the manticore's transformation. Originally, this part-lion, part-scorpion, part-winged beast would bestow quests on brave adventurers and is an archetypal character of classic fantasy stories. But seeing as that way of life has since fallen by the wayside in Onward, Corey has had to adapt.

Related: How Onward Strives To Maintain Pixar’s High Bar For Storytelling

This manticore is no longer a quest-giver but an overworked restaurant manager, and the tavern where she once would host travelers is no longer a dark and mysterious watering hole, but bright, colorful, and modeled after restaurants like Chuck E. Cheese or T.G.I. Friday's. She's used her old maps to create kid activity place mats while hiring someone to portray a sanitized, kid-friendly mascot version of herself. Most notably, though, Corey has pawned her broadsword, Cursebreaker, in order to settle some debts. In doing so, she's not only given away a powerful weapon that she must later retrieve, but she's abandoned her original role in Onward's fantasy world.


The Brothers' Quest In Onward Explained

Onward-Ian and Barley-van

The quest that Ian and Barley go on in Onward begins with the visitation spell left to them by their father and is informed by Barley's knowledge from the Quests of Yore guidebook. It follows a standard quest structure of introducing an item that needs to be found, in this case the phoenix gem, followed by the heroes learning new information about where to the find the item from another character, the manticore. They then set off in the direction of their item but are met with obstacles that challenge them, which for Onward means Ian leaning how to better use magic by believing in himself. Sacrifices are made along the way and in the end a dragon must be slain, only giving the quest even more of fantasy feel.

Ian and Barley's quest is what ties together the many different fantasy elements of Onward's world, reintroducing magic and using it to remind everyone of what's been lost by forgetting their past. Their adventure is a blend of the fantastical and the familiar, using a traditional fantasy quest framework to tell a heartfelt story about two brothers who come to know each other better while trying to rediscover their father.

Next: Every Pixar Movie Releasing After Onward



Pixar's latest movie, Onward, is now playing at Regal.

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