Part of growing up is learning to see the world differently. It’s an insight that the creative wizards at Pixar seem to have internalized. Most of the studio’s movies, going back to the original Toy Story, are all about presenting the world differently, either by adopting an unfamiliar point of view—of toys or bugs or fish, looking up at what we normally look down on—or creating a proxy world that’s like ours but also fantastically not. All of which is to say that Pixar is acutely aware of the power of perspective, as well as animation’s unique ability to both honor and manipulate it. At their best, these movies tend to saddle their characters with perspective shifts of their own. Think of Buzz Lightyear learning his true purpose, or the blobby leisure cruisers of WALL-E snapping out of their lifelong technological trance, or Anton Ego having his cranky, hard-won critical remove shattered by a transformative culinary experience.
On the whole, there’s nothing very fresh about the perspective of Onward, Pixar’s latest feature. (It came out in March, making it one of the last movies to hit American theaters before they all closed, as well as the last subject of this series.) Though set in a fantasy world that’s basically modern America by way of Dungeons & Dragons, the movie’s story is less than imaginative. It’s a cozy and derivative sitcom road movie about two elf siblings, teen wallflower Ian (Tom Holland) and table-top-gaming older brother Barley (Chris Pratt), who embark on a voyage to magically conjure their dead father for some beyond-the-grave bonding. The whole thing is weirdly formulaic by Pixar standards, with only one truly inspired idea: the half-presence of the boys’ half-resurrected dad, who spends most of the movie as an unspeaking pair of disembodied legs.
Yet Onward sneaks up on you. In classic Pixar fashion, it finds its way to a tearjerking finale—an unexpectedly moving destination after a journey of mild misadventure, life-lesson detours, and ’80s comedy clichés. It’s not exactly surprising that director Dan Scanlon and his team of cowriters deliver the four-hankie payoff their premise promises, with Ian and Barley eventually succeeding in temporarily filling in Dad’s top half. Where Pixar confounds expectations is in the details of the inevitable ending, in which Ian selflessly chooses to fend off the marauding dragon the two have awakened so that Barley can enjoy some quality time with their father before it’s too late. And this leads to a genuine twist of, yes, perspective, as the younger Lightfoot—boxed in by the rubble left behind by the beast he’s toppled—watches from afar as his brother and father share a final word without him.
It is, if nothing else, a beautifully directed and animated sequence. Scanlon stages the moment entirely from Ian’s vantage, cutting between a wide POV shot of the conversation and close-ups of the character’s secondhand appreciation as he peers out through narrow windows in the stone debris. At one point, Ian loses his footing and catches a glimpse, through another hole in the remains, of the setting sun, destined to take with it the father he barely remembers and won’t get to properly meet. Literally creating distance from the big emotional climax of the film has the paradoxical effect of making it more affecting: No dialogue could compete with the silent poignancy of father and son embracing across the way, and depicting that through the eyes of someone else effectively steers the moment clear of excessive sentimentality. One could maybe argue that we didn’t need the scene, a moment later, of Barley relaying to Ian what their father said to him. But it does reinforce the relationship between the two—the sense that the older brother has stepped up, becoming for his little brother what his father was for him.
It’s a smart subversion, providing catharsis but not the exact kind audiences might anticipate. Because Ian’s positioned as the protagonist, we assume all along that the heartfelt reunion will be between him and his father. But the crux of his journey turns out to be the realization that he wasn’t lost as a fatherless kid, because he had an older brother looking out for him; Ian’s sacrifice in the final minutes reflects his understanding that talking to their dad will mean more to Barley, who much more vividly remembers the man (sorry, the elf) who raised him. That’s the true pivot in perspective the film offers, underscored by the visual elegance of the ending. Meanwhile, the scene reinforces a more conventional perspective, too—namely, that there are few equals in American animation to Pixar, whose technical and emotional sophistication shines brightly as ever, even in an otherwise minor fable like Onward.