In Appreciation of Pixar’s Onward
When we think of high fantasy, we normally think of huge, global stakes. In The Lord of the Rings we’re fighting for the fate of all of Middle Earth. In A Song of Ice and Fire the Iron Throne and the future of Westeros as we know it is at stake. Mainstream high fantasy has a tendency to focus on large-scale stakes - we’re overthrowing kings and tyrants, we’re shifting the course of history, one man (or woman) has the fate of the world strapped to their badass shoulders.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love me some massive-stakes high fantasy. But something I found particularly refreshing about Pixar’s singularly delightful film, Onward, was the smaller, more immediate scope of the story.
Onward takes place in a story world where the magic of old has been usurped by technology. We still have fairies and elves and unicorns, but they ride motorcycles, talk on cell phones, and dig through trash cans, respectively. The story follows two brothers with a spell that can bring their deceased father back to them for just one day. Something goes wrong in their first attempt to cast the spell and they only bring back his legs, so they have to go on an adventure to find the materials they need to give the spell one more try.
SPOILERS FOR ONWARD AHEAD. If you haven’t watched the film yet, don’t read this post right now. Go watch the film (seriously, it’s so wholesome, you won’t regret it), then come back and read. :)
The great thing about this film is that it shows how standard high fantasy tropes (MC is the only one who can do magic, characters go on a quest for a cursed magical artifact, etc.) can translate well into a smaller story.
Ian, the main character and younger brother, is the first wizard in god only knows how long in the world of Onward. With that piece of the puzzle, the story could have expanded and gotten HUGE, stakes-wise, right? He could have been involved in some kind of plot to unlock the key to magic for everyone, or he could have been hunted down by people looking to keep magic at bay, joined a resistance and fought to overthrow an oppressive, anti-magic regime… Is that what happened?
Instead, Ian’s newfound magic is just a helpful tool that he and his brother, Barley, make use of to help their quest to see their father for one last day. The magic is used by the story more as a metaphor for Ian’s growing self-confidence than it is used as a plot-driving device. Sure, it gets the characters out of (and into) some sticky situations, but the core of the story is never about the magic.
The heart of the story is the relationship between the brothers, their mom, their mom’s new boyfriend, and their deceased dad. A single family - tiny stakes, globally speaking. Huge stakes, character-wise.
As a fantasy writer, I tend to gravitate more toward massive, earth-shattering stakes for my stories. Watching Onward was a great inspiration for me to explore the ways in which I can take my high fantasy plot devices and translate them into smaller, more personal stories instead of always going straight for the fate of the world.
Human (or elven) relationships are almost always the beating heart of any story, and tales like Onward are great reminders that those relationships don’t always have to be relegated to the Land of Subplots.