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March 5, 2020
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Onward And Upward! Pixar’s Onward Marks A Glowing Start To The 2020s

Onward, Review

Posted by Joanna • March 5, 2020

It feels fitting that Onward is Pixar’s first movie of the decade. It is Pixar’s first ‘original movie’ (a phrase which I have some contention with to be honest since I feel all of Pixar’s sequels are wonderfully original) since 2017. It is beautiful and bittersweet, and it shines a glowing staff upon Pixar’s bright and exciting future as we enter a new era for the studio.

It’s well-known that many of Pixar’s movies take inspiration from the filmmakers’ own personal experiences, but the story of Onward feels like the most personal one yet. Director Dan Scanlon lost his dad when he was just a year old, and this true-to-life concept of growing up without a dad, and with no memories of even having one, is thoughtfully and tenderly explored throughout the movie. The plot is simple, leaving room for the movie’s relationships and its deeply moving message.

Brothers Ian and Barley live in a world that is both familiar and unfamiliar. Onward is a modern fantasy, and it takes that genre title very seriously. Wherever there’s an opportunity, Onward plays with this mixture of modern and fantastical – you can see this in the satisfyingly clashing settings, the character designs, and you can even hear it in the music. The soundtrack can go from Lord of the Rings vibes to dance party in a heartbeat, and that weird juxtaposition feels so good.

The plot may be simple, but that’s not to say that it’s “been done before”: Two brothers set out on a quest together to spend an extra 24 hours with their deceased dad. But get this – the dad’s pre-arranged magical spell didn’t quite work and he is just a pair of legs.

…It’s really fun explaining the plot of Onward to people who haven’t come across it yet (luckily I don’t think that’ll be a problem for much longer).

Death and grief are heavy subjects, but Onward talks about them anyway. Ian and Barley (and Scanlon’s family) never had the choice to shy away from these topics – they were rooted right in the centre of their lives. Onward talks about the difficulties that come from family loss, but also about how people adapt, and how life keeps going. This serious premise may be a large part of the movie’s heart, but as we follow the brothers on their quest, we also see a great cast of characters, brilliant voice acting, stunning animation (the way they got a pair of legs to have so much character is amazing), lighting, and settings, and an impressive number of well-thought-out fantasy references. My personal favourite is the gelatinous cube – the first mention of it brought back memories of fighting a bizarre gelatinous cube boss in Final Fantasy X on the PS2. Fantasy tropes are weird and wonderful. And, unsurprisingly, so is Onward!

Onward officially releases tomorrow (March 6th). I saw it on February 29th – special sneak previews were available across the globe on Leap Day to encourage people to spend that extra 24 hours with a loved one. You don’t need it to be Leap Day to do that though.

Onward’s jokes and gags will make you laugh, its characters will immediately find a place in your heart, and its ending – it’ll stay with you indefinitely.

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A New Kind of Magic

Behind The Scenes, Onward, Onward press day

Posted by Simoa • March 5, 2020

The world of Onward has roots in the ancient. The mythical creatures of yore still exist, but they’re watered down versions of themselves. There is no myth or mystery in the quaint little town of New Mushroomton. In this world without magic, Ian and Barley venture to reclaim it. But first, filmmakers had to create the magic that the two brothers set out to find and master.

One group at Pixar was formed for the sole purpose of bringing authentic fantasy to the film. They were called The Fellowship. A deep love and knowledge of the genre led them to meet frequently and share their favorite things about fantasy; things they wanted to see in Onward and others they were happier to leave out! One of the Fellowship members who led a presentation last fall at the studio was Louise Smythe. She’s a story artist with boundless enthusiasm for fantasy that hasn’t left her since childhood. As a story artist, she works with Dan Scanlon to develop the script.

There was one crucial question that guided the script wrting and drawing process:

What is the Onward and Pixar version of magic?

The answer lay in three components:

  1. Every spell must originate with heartsfire, a fancy magical term for self confidence. You can’t cast spells without it!
  2. The higher level spells have magic decrees which require a certain mental/emotional state in order to work.
  3. The most advanced spells require the above factors and an added assist element. An example is the phoenix gem that’s used to conjure Ian and Barley’s dad.

Spells in Onward all incorporate emotions, materials, movement, and verbal commands. As always, everything in the film serves the characters and stories. Ian’s character development was influenced by magic. The crew wanted to draw him out of his comfort zone, so the gangly, awkward teenage elf would have to do really awkward poses. He’d even grit his teeth and strain to complete spells. That was fine, but it didn’t provide much of an emotional response. The solution to that arrived in one of the film’s most pivotal scenes, where Ian has to take a leap of faith, quite literally. That’s when the audience is meant to become even more invested in his journey.

In addition to the Fellowship was the Spell Squad. They were tasked with naming the spells. Dan had a couple rules they needed to follow:

  1. Each spell had to be short and to the point.
  2. You can guess what it is by hearing it.
  3. No gibberish.

The magic of Onward doesn’t only concern the spells, it even functions as a character. It’s meant to support Ian, echoing what we learned about his character development. Effects supervisor Vincent Serritella approached the task of personifying magic by studying magicians whose tricks are invisible. Visualizing the magic onscreen was informed by its size – the larger the spell, the more screen space it inhabits. When the boys conjure their dad, you can see how powerful it is because it disrupts the environment. Certain spells were also strong enough to affect Ian and Barley’s performances by the animators.

Since Onward is also inspired by the aesthetics of roleplay fantasy games- most notably in Barley’s passion for them – it was a really fun exercise for art director Paul Conrad and the graphics department. The artists in this department will often sneak in a good chunk of Easter eggs. They’re also responsible for decorating the sets and creating the world’s logos and brands. Graphics contribute another layer of authenticity. Moviegoers may miss some of the details embedded within the film, but they will notice the little ‘magic touches’ in the designs. You’ll note one detail on the parchment below – see how aged it looks?

the visitation spell by Paul Conrad

What I found cool about this particular session was learning about Barley’s beloved Quests of Yore book. It doubles as a game and a historical document. It might even be actual merch! The book was designed for 3D and it has no blank pages.

Ultimately, what the filmmakers really wanted to create is a version of magic that would be as memorable as Tinkerbell’s pixie dust.

You’ll be able to see for yourself if it reaches that high standard when Onward hits theaters tomorrow!

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