ONWARD, Story-craft, and Building The Moment of Transcendence

Movies are really, really, really, really, really hard to make.

Which makes the existence of Pixar all the more miraculous. I don’t say that with any kind of hagiographical instinct. It’s just that they have an uncommon ability to make films with a consistent level of storytelling quality you don’t see from many other studios or production companies. It’s something evident in the classics like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Wall*E, Inside Out, and many more. But it also brings up a question: what is it that separates these heart-rendering instant classics from the “pretty good” efforts in the rest of Pixar’s library? This question not only provides a good framework for us to learn about storytelling, but it also allows us to dive right into Pixar’s most recent film, which I feel rides right on the edge of that line.

To be clear, I really liked Onward. I mean, it’s a hard film not to like. It features consistently good gags (the pants animation always slays), some great over the top hilarious moments (Gwynevere’s launch), and lots of graceful moments of sentimentality. And when it comes to the crux of the film’s third act, it makes so many great choices. But the thing about these choices is that they also leave me with a whole lot of questions. Mostly about the film’s core aims and dramatic set-ups. But all these questions are a good thing! Because they are all part of how you really take apart a film and look at its most essential elements.

To wit, if you’ve never read Creativity, Inc., I suggest you do (given that Amazon is beyond awful, please try to find a local seller - here’s an indiebound link). The book goes super deep into the creative process at Pixar. No, there’s no secret “get rich quick!” formula to be found within it. What they instead reveal is the same thing I told you at the beginning: making movies is hard. The only real key is to have an open process that allows you to keep working on the core story as much as possible as it unfolds. To come up with big ideas no matter how much they undo the “established” aspects of the plot or characterization so far. Which means the key to any good creative process is having open candor and asking the right thought-provoking questions, no matter how broad they may seem.

So let’s engage in a hypothetical! Let’s say we just sat down and were shown this version of Onward (or a final draft of this exact script, etc) and then told “how do you think we can make this better?” It wouldn’t matter how much we would change (I mean, it would have to stay in the same ballpark, you can’t just make them Transformers or something). The goal is to completely take apart of every piece of the movie. And who knows, what gets put back together may be very similar! But maybe not. The point is simply to dive in and identify problems, no matter how small and innocuous they may seem. 

So here are the series of broad, provoking questions that I would ask…

Why is this the main quest?

In some ways, the main story of Onward is straight-forward. 

We have a setting where the characters live in a magic fantasy world of elves, centaurs, and pixies, but at one point everyone adopted technology because it was easier. Thus, the art of magic was lost. After this information is established, we learn that young Ian Lightfoot never knew his dad, who died just before he was born. But then, on his sixteenth birthday, Ian and his brother Barley are given a magic staff along with a spell that will allow their father to come back for just one day. The reason their father gifted this to them? He so badly wanted to see how his boys have grown and who they turned out to be. At first, the two of them try the spell and it goes rather badly (they only bring back his bottom half). So in order to fix it: they have to somehow find another magic gem, finish the spell, and then have one last moment with their dad. On paper, this is a really interesting and fun idea with a ticking clock. Better yet, the goals are all clear, properly motivated, and make logical sense, right? 

The annoying thing about stories is that it is not just about making “sense,” it’s about making a conflict that resonates with people. It’s telling a story that can tap into the emotions that we all feel and details that reflect on the relationships in our own life. This is what we call the “natural level of investment” and it’s just something to be aware of because it will often bring you right to the forefront of your thematic playground. And given this set-up, Onward dives straight into the longstanding notions of fathers and sons. 

Now, I generally hate the term but I fully understand that a male character’s “daddy issues” exist at the core of a lot of cinema (after all, white men have been telling the majority of our stories for some time). But so many people have different relationships to the very idea of what “dad” means. For some, their dads were stern and distant figures that they craved the love of. For others, their dads were benevolent, god-like figures that they could never live up to. It’s always different. Some dads were dorky joke tellers. Some people lost their dad’s while young. Some were abused by their dads. And for some of us, we had no wish to really know our dads at all. Which means that depending on the portrayal, our natural investment may vary.

But with Onward, Dan Scanlon has made an intensely autobiographical film about a very specific and uncommon circumstance. In real life, it’s not just that his father passed away, it’s that he actually died when Dan was just born (he also had an older brother who was three). Which means Dan never really knew his dad at all. Naturally, it created in him a sense of great curiosity and a sense of yearning to know more about him. But all Dan had was one old recording of his father that he could listen to, which made it this grand mystery hanging over his life. All these details make it into the film verbatim. Even if uncommon, it’s totally interesting problem to explore in a film! And on a cerebral level, I understand this situation completely. I also deeply sympathize with it, as would anyone. 

But the trouble with is that movies require more than just sympathy, they require building empathy. And because this is a such an uncommon experience that many people may not be able to quickly relate to, that means that it takes a special form of build-up and dramatization to make the audience feel like “this happened to me, too!” Which takes not just a declaration of what a character wants, but the expression of pain and hardship as a result of the event in question. But Onward doesn’t really do a lot of empathy-building and contextualization. Instead, it makes a small, but secretly devastating assumption that the audience only needs to see Ian’s sense of yearning to be fully invested and ready to go along with this story. 

I know it may seem like it is motivation enough, but please understand, at the root of all investment is conflict. And we’re not really seeing how Ian’s yearning for his father is a core problem for him. Ask, how has not knowing his dad seemed to affect him at all? Beyond the yearning and curiosity, how has not knowing his father held him back? Has wanting to do so consumed him and prevented him from doing other things? I feels like there are touches of these notions in Ian’s lack of character development (which we’ll come back to), but the film never draws a clear one-to-one between them. More importantly, we never articulate the impact of the loss dramatically. In fact, the opening never really zeroes in on core flaws of any of the characters (there’s just some light sprinkling and lip service). 

The quest’s origin only exists as a stated want. And as a result, there’s nothing the audience actively wants to “fix” within the situation. And no matter how beautiful a resolution you craft, there is a way you only create a “satisfactory” driving quest, not a deeply cathartic one that fixes something deep inside us. Which brings us to the larger obstacle in the structure of this storifying this particular quest…

What is the film’s moment of transcendence?

Phil Lord always said that “movies are about relationships.”

Relationships where we watch characters that we’ve come to love really learn from one another and grow together. But the driving problem with this main quest of Onward is that it isn’t really about a relationship, but the void created by a non-relationship. Ian wants the idea of a relationship his father, which is really hard to dramatize. And thematically-speaking, it’s made harder because what really dealing with is the limits of unknowability. Heck, it’s almost as if Ian is on a quest to have a conversation with god. But the film essentially acknowledges the essence of these problems with the choices made in the ending (oh yeah, spoilers like crazy in this article from here on in). Because what Ian learns is not only that he can get that desired emotional connection from his brother (and always has), he also learns to let go of this “idea” of his relationship with his dad and be safe in the knowledge he’ll never get to know him or have that catharsis.

On the meta level, this absolutely makes sense for Dan Scanlon as the author of the film because it is true to his particular perspective. He’s never going to be able to have that conversation with his father, and so, as a human being without magic, he must learn to let that idea go. But as dramatized within the story itself? There are a few nagging problems with this. Some of it is just logical hang ups about why this lesson applies to him, but not the brother? But the biggest problem is that you are creating a thread of constant denialism where the big thing that the audience wants just isn’t happening, and in the end, is never going to happen.  

As a storyteller, the obstacle is this inherently fails the “moment of transcendence.” 

What is that, you ask? It’s basically the core mechanism of all audience rooting interest. It’s creating a problem early in the film that the audience instinctively wants to fix. Better yet, something the audience wants to have happen more than anything else in the world! And then having that thing happen in the most dramatic possible way! The classic movies are made in these moments. Even just within Pixar: it’s Woody getting Andy’s love and attention again. Or Buzz learning the truth about himself and being okay with it. Or Riley learning to cry in front of her parents which truly shows Joy what Sadness is for. It’s even the final, beautiful last song of remembrance in Coco, which finally jogs great-grandma’s memory. These moments work not just because of their beautiful sentimentality and execution, but because the story created the exact right conditions for these sequences to become the moments of transcendence AKA the things we desperately wanted more than anything else.  

But Onward’s final moments aren’t about that kind of resolution are they? The audience, like Ian, are all left on the outside yearning. And that’s a tough thing to hit an audience with, something almost purposefully withholding on a storytelling level. But if that’s really the thematic goal? Then you have to use the beginning to make the audience secretly want that most of all, they just didn’t know it. Which means that Onward is attempting is a far more difficult trick: The bait and switch

That is the storytelling device where the thing the audience conceivably wants is not what comes to fruition at all. But instead, the thing they didn’t realize they wanted and needed was right there underneath the story all the while… And Onward actually has a beautiful amazing idea for this moment of transcendence: Ian realizing that his older brother Barley was really the father he had his whole life? Damn. It’s the “right” ending through and through. Especially because it’s the relationship we’ve seen dramatized this whole running time. The moment totally “works” well enough on the audience because it has enough execution in place (especially with the set-up of the “to do” list).

But when I examine the way the movie gets to that moment of transcendence? I realize a whole lot of issues in the set-up. Moments that may even seem good on paper, but which could have provided more conflict and more innate audience desire underneath it. Moments that could have made a more entertaining, meaningful movie. And moments which could have made that ending even more transcendent. I’m not trying to say most of these moments are “bad.” I’m saying that if our goal is to take a movie that rides the line of “pretty good” and make it “great,” then these moments are exactly what you have to dive into. Starting with another question…

What is the core driving conflict?

I ask this a lot when going over scripts. But I’m not really talking about things that set the plot in motion or the final objective (which we talked about in the quest section above). What I’m talking about is the constant friction that drives and sustains the plot of the movie. For example, Rocky is a young amateur given a chance to fight the heavyweight champion of the world! But the core driving conflict of that movie is Rocky’s relationship with his trainer, Mick, who thinks he’s a no-talent bum who doesn’t deserve this opportunity. The two are essentially going at each other through the training process, which sustains the movie from beat to beat. And yes, the differences in a central relationship are often the core driving conflict of any story.

Take most romantic comedies, where the two leads have some scoop or goal they both have to accomplish together (Roman Holiday, His Girl Friday, 27 Dresses, etc). At first they have these different personalities and they are clashing and fighting, before they find mutual understanding and love. Now, is the conflict light-hearted and often funny? Yes. But it’s still conflict. All stories absolutely need that baseline because it sustains us along the journey to the goal. And Pixar movies often understand this completely.

The thing is that the two brothers in Onward, Ian and Barley, don’t really have a great driving core conflict. A lot of what they face is outward challenges or circumstances based (whether it’s pixies or cops or puzzles). It’s like the film knows there SHOULD BE conflict between them, but often it doesn’t add up into something cohesive. There’s a lot of lip-service and some obligatory stuff about picking a path, trusting Barley’s DnD knowledge, and Ian thinking his older brother is a screw up. Heck, they even have different personalities, with Ian being fearful and unsure of himself and Barley being cocksure. But there’s no real underlying tension based on their personalities. They both want the same thing. They both (seemingly) have the same frame of references with their dad. And more problematically, they start the journey with their relationship more or less intact. 

So when Ian gets to the point where he yells at Barley and calls him a “screw-up,” it’s meant to be this huge moment where the truth has come out after earlier allusions (like in the scene with the cop). But it doesn’t feel that hurtful to us because we haven’t set up anything that makes it feel like Ian (and therefore us) really, truly should believe that. While watching, I don’t know what’s so bad about Barley and seemingly neither does Ian so it becomes this true lack of dramatization. Heck, I don’t even really know what being “a screw up” means in the context of film. I have so much texture of conflict between them, but if you asked me to define their core driving conflict based on their mutual psychologies in a singular sentence? I really couldn’t.

Hey! Can’t they just kinda like each other? Can’t they just have fun?

I guess, but it’s not exactly that kind of story, is it? I mean, this isn’t a rambling hang out movie a la Magic Mike XXL (which was still laser-pointed in its characterization and themes about conflict resolution). No, Pixar movies make or break themselves on nailing these exact kinds of conflict dynamics and ensuing catharsis. Joy and Sadness are polar opposites and go on their journey with the competing tensions of their personalities, wants, and needs driving virtually everything. Same goes for the journeys of Carl and Russell, Woody and Buzz, Marlon and Dory. But here, the core driving conflict between Ian and Barley feels undeveloped and wishy-washy. 

The question is why? 

Why leave so much conflict untouched? Like the film never plays the idea that Ian can just DO magic and how that might be a source of conflict for Barley (largely because trying to set up the flip that comes later in his encouraging attitude). But we really miss that tension. Even the moment early on in the school where Ian gets embarrassed by his dorky brother feels fumbled because it’s not carried through into other circumstances, nor is embarrassment even a present issue in the final catharsis between. There’s no moment where Ian stands up and is suddenly super proud of his brother to others. Heck, for a film that’s ostensibly a two-hander, it rarely really lets us into Barley’s perspective at all. All of this would be super helpful in understanding them at the beginning and playing up a bigger conflict to fix. 

Instead, the opening of the film spends so much time setting up the world and the nature of magic… Which I realize brings on another huge question…

Why is THIS film in THIS setting?

Onward has a truly great hook. We are in a magical world that has forgotten about magic. Because of this, it can get constant visual gags about centaurs piling into cars, or pixies operating motor bikes as a team, or dumb unicorns eating trash. And it obviously serves as the key quest point that allows the possibility for a magic spell that then allows these two brothers to talk to their dad. But in the end? I really don’t know what this film is trying to say about magic, thematically-speaking.  

Especially when we get to that ending coda, where we see that Ian has “brought magic back” to society and he is teaching people in the classroom. Again, I ask a series of questions: How is this really impacted society for the better? Is the metaphor made explicit in those moments? Does this actually draw a parallel that connects to his journey with his dad? Does it connect to the lesson he learns in that journey And most importantly, is any of this actually dramatized?

I think the film touches on a lot of varying ideas. On one level, magic seems to be about remembering our more primal exciting selves, unleashing our inner warriors (like the ending beat with Ian’s mother) and not being so tame (her new boyfriend unleashing his hair). Likewise, Ian’s magic lessons become useful on his adventure and instill him with confidence. The spells he learns even become fundamental parts of belief, faith, concentration. The things that lead him to his final goal of self-actualization… But is it okay to want something less vague than that? Because as that end montage gets splashed about and we see him teaching it in school, there’s something that feels so evasive about the ending connection of this whole story. Something I wish was brought into the transcendence of the story in such a vivid way.

To compare, a film like Inside Out takes its metaphorical setting to craft a remarkable complex story about the first moments of maturity and adulthood. One about making memories that are more than one emotion and how we grow and relate to the world. It’s grand and sweeping, but it also feels like part of a cohesive, singular thought. Same goes for Carl’s journey on the “spirit of adventure” and rekindling a kind of lost love after a life of becoming sedentary. But with Onward, I can’t help but feel like I’m left with disparate parts of those half-formed ideas. The brother, the father, the magic, the history, the inner self. It’s all part of great hooks, but it doesn’t really resonate as a singular thought…

Which brings us back to the film’s climax…

Why this ending? AKA Why this beginning?

Like I said, I believe Onward actually has the right ending. 

Particularly this beautiful moment near the climax where Ian goes off to be alone. He just had a fight with Barley. He feels lost and defeated, his dad won’t be coming back, after all. So he goes over the list of things he never got to do with him. But as he looks it over, he realizes that he’s actually gotten to do all those things with his brother. It crests into a beautiful montage of Barley being there for him, one full of genuine sentiment and connection. And it says the things I think are important to say about brotherhood, the shifting roles of family, and getting what you really need versus the thing you want. It’s our moment of transcendence. And everything within the scene itself is executed beautifully. There is nothing I would change about it… The only problems come with the set-up. 

As the old Billy Wilder adage, “if there’s a problem with your third act, it usually means there’s a problem with your first act.” Because it’s usually a matter of set-ups and pay-offs. And with Onward, there are so many great small versions of these. Like the mother’s exercise video becomes her mantra in the fight. Or the way it sets up pixies can’t fly, but then when their lives are threatened, they can spread their wings and fly. And when comes to the big moment of Ian’s transcendent realization that his brother was the father he really needed, there are so many little great beats in the montage (I especially loved the game of catch). But it still needs to tap into that deep catharsis of conflict. You can’t coast on sympathy alone. You can’t count on the mere time you’ve spent liking these characters. You can’t count on mere association where the audience member might go “I had an older brother and this reminds me of that!” It has to be, “oh my god THESE two people are finally coming together! Yes! This is what I’ve wanted!” 

I’ve already addressed the core conflict and settings issue, but let’s ask the question: What is it that would make the audience want this catharsis as much as possible from the very onset?

Whenever I get to help on scripts I usually end up telling people “we’re going to work on the first 17 pages more than anything.” Because executing a great set-up is never easy because you have to dramatically demonstrate two conflicting ideas at once: One, that these two characters are really far away from this point of catharsis right now, which you do this by showing the ways the two characters are in stark conflict. And two, at the same time, you have to dramatize the way they both are deserving of that catharsis. You usually do this by showing the way they are vulnerable and deserving of empathy. You innately reach into the audience and make them think, “I want this unappreciative person to be appreciated,” or “I want this wound to be healed,” or “I want these two to understand each other.”

Before we get into Onward, let’s start with a great example of how this works in Finding Nemo. We begin with a famously haunting scene. Marlin with his wife Coral are doting over their expecting eggs, looking over their new home on the edge. We get a peek at his insecurities, his openness, his verve for life, we even set up the future naming of Nemo. But then there’s a terrifying barracuda attack, he loses Coral. He loses all the eggs save one… This will be Nemo. It’s such a powerful, gripping way to start a movie. But in terms of dramatizing empathy, it is incredible. In just a few minutes, I feel deeply for this fish who nearly lost everything. 

But it also does a remarkable job of setting up Marlon’s new flaw. He’s become INCREDIBLY over-protective of Nemo. But we perfectly understand why and have empathy for him having gone through that trauma. But we also understand Nemo’s position, too. His father is doubting his every move. Nemo has no space to play or discover himself and be a person. It’s a perfect conflict because we genuinely like both of these characters and understand why they are at odds. So when the nightmare scenario happens again and Nemo is taken away by the diver, it will be the test that makes both of them have to understand their limitations and all the ways they have to change, in order to come together in a moment of transcendence. And what makes their reuniting all the MORE remarkable is how it is dependent on the third character in the story, Dory, finally remembering something and facilitating the titular finding. It comes together so perfectly. All because those first 17 pages set up both the conflict and the reasons why we want the conflict to be solved.

And when I think about the first 17 pages of Onward… 

I really have trouble holding onto things that are concrete in terms of establishing relationships. I know Ian wants to know what his dad was like. I know he wants to be brave and do things at school. I know Barley is really into Dungeons and Dragons. I know the mom is doing aerobics. But I am not getting any real conflict at all, especially because we are establishing “traits” not “dynamics.” Sure, you get a vague sense of how the characters feel about one another. His mom refers to Barley as taking “the longest gap year.” Ian is kind of embarrassed when his brother shows up at school when he’s trying to make friends. But it’s really not enough. Remember, it’s nothing like the taut, empathy-driven dynamics of Finding Nemo. I’m not saying there has to be this incredibly traumatic event. I just know when I watch the opening of Onward, the truth is there isn’t an expressed thing that I “want” to happen more than anything else (and even the thing the main character wants, they are not going to get). I don’t watch these two brothers and desperately want them to heal something.

This is the essential problem of half set-ups. The “finally appreciating Barley” scene is great in the execution in and of itself, but if it’s not something I desperately have wanted as an audience, and thus it doesn’t strike a chord to the degree that it should. There’s so many smaller moments like this just before the climax, too. For example, Ian’s anger at realizing they went full circle feels out of character and rash (particularly when the iconography is right next to him). The school and the dragon was just a sight gag instead of something more established in the dynamics of his personhood. The fountain Barley tried to protect was a quick flash on the news, not something more central to the driving conflict. 

I know storytellers sometimes worry about things being “telegraphed.” They’re so desperate to surprise the audience that they often hide anything close to intention just so they can catch an audience off guard (JJ Abrams is the most committed to this). But you really need to create dramatized conflicts no matter what. And the way you eschew telegraphing is through smart misdirection, not simply making them “less shown” with quick glances. Essentially, you want to dramatize a set-up organically so that no one thinks about it as a set-up. And Onward comes so close to executing these kinds of moments, they’re always in the right ballpark. But they feel off by fractions of degrees that can’t help but add up.

If I had to name one central issue that hurts more than any other, I think it’s all about the film’s misunderstanding of a core wound. To wit, Finding Nemo’s power lies in the affecting nature of it’s terrifying opening. The same goes for Up, where we see the entire arc of Carl’s life and the depth of his loss. These scenes are defined by pain and regret, and incredible manners of which they establish empathy. Whatever could they do in Onward to establish something similar? The truth is the movie even alludes to it…

There’s a moment that comes near the climax (way too near it, honestly) where Barley chunkily reveals he actually has “a fourth memory” of their dad. It was him as a little three year old and he had a chance to go into say one last goodbye to his dying father… But he didn’t do it. He was too terrified by the tubes and wires, and more the very thought of death. It’s such a powerful, scary image that he plants in our heads. But even before we have a chance to meditate on it, he proclaims “and that’s when I decided I would never be scared again!” And it’s like wait, what “you just immediately solved your emotional trauma as a three year old?” But it’s a bigger problem then the logic error. Because it’s at that point you realize what the movie is avoiding the most essential element of its set-up. 

Because the second I hear that story and I immediately think THAT! That’s the moment that is so scary and affecting. That’s what we should actually see! Imagine this film opening on a small child terrified, afraid to walk in to see his father. Imagine if he could only see his father’s lower half from the doorway, just a pair of legs in a hospital bed (which would be set-up set-up set-up for what is to follow). From this whole scenario, I would understand so much of what plagues this character. I would understand so much of what would be left unresolved. I would want a reconciliation for this character more than anything else in the world! Hell, the movie even agrees with this sentiment and that’s why Ian hands it off the catharsis moment with their father to Barley… which leaves us with a huge question… why are the two most powerful moments of this entire freaking story both off-screen? 

Well, that brings us to a question that goes to the deepest DNA of the film…

Why is this person the main character?

Dan Scanlon has made a movie from his perspective. 

In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with this. It feels natural, even. That’s because it’s so easy to see ourselves as the main character of every story. And often, telling personal stories from our personal perspective is good because it allows us to take something we understand so well and communicate it to others… But it can also be limiting. It can frame a story only within our particular view points and wants, and in turn we miss bigger truths, both about the world and ourselves. Because most good stories are about peering deeply into a character’s behavior and laying out all the faults, problems, and ugliness, then heal them in profoundly honest ways. But when you operate so closely to your own perspective? It can sometimes prevent us from digging deep within ourselves and others… which I feel is sadly true of Onward.

If you really look at it, Tom Holland is an amazing actor, but Ian Lightfoot is a main character whose defining traits seem to be “placeholder main character.” Everything about him is both generic and broad. He wants to fit in! He wants to be more confident! I understand that the idea behind this broadness is to appeal to “everyone.” But the universal appeal often lies in the dramatic articulation of the specific. I mean, I don’t know how to tell you this but I didn’t lose thousands of my little egg babies and my wife wasn’t eaten by a barracuda, but I sure as shit experienced that moment in Finding Nemo as if I had. And stories like this? They need to bring you into specific.

Instead, everything about Ian feels vague. I watch that opening and I’m like, wait, has he never been to this school before? Or ANY school before? Does he know these people on any level as he talks to them? Has he really never made a friend in 16 years? What is he actually interested in besides meeting a dad he’s never met? Who is this person, anyway? There’s so little to hang on. It almost feels like that John Mulaney joke, “I look like I didn’t used to do anything. I look like I was just sitting in a room on a chair eating saltines for like [16] years… And then I came out here.” I understand the idea is that Ian needs to discover himself, but no one on this planet is a blank slate. And if we can’t identify with specifics of his personality in a way that communicates more than blankness, then we can’t really go on his journey with him. 

Seriously, some of Ian’s interactions in the first 17 pages feel downright alien and bizarre. Take something seemingly innocuous, the big beat just before the title hits where we see that he’s someone who actually puts “16th Birthday” on his calendar (and JUST that). Upon seeing that my friend Joe responded, “who is this crazy person?” It sounds silly, but this stuff matters so much. Someone who writes down their birthday on a calendar would likely have a lot of other things written down on it, too. Instead it’s just a symbolic blank slate. Which makes it a hallmark of overreaching screenwriting exposition. Worse, it’s also completely unnecessary because two seconds later his mother announces that its his birthday.

Again, this is all about set-up and pay-offs, right? I can’t be roused into a person “discovering themselves” if I can’t build up empathy for the specifics of their personhood or plight or failures or misgivings. I also can’t be ecstatic for someone learning that he has to “let go” of the idea he’s going to not see his dad unless it absolutely dramatizes the problems of his fixation. He’s just a vacant placeholder. They even gave him a paint-by-numbers hero’s journey storytelling trait where he can just “do magic” cause he was born with it or something. Whatever digging deep that needs to happen in his characterization? It doesn’t happen. And at the same time, the film’s fixation on operating from Ian’s singular perspective is exactly what helps kill the development of others.

Because the dramatization across the board is downright myopic. It’s not that I think the film doesn’t doesn’t care about other characters. It’s just that it sees the audience as too closely attached to Ian. It’s only about his inability to know. And thus, the film can’t possibly operate outside that limitation, as well. It’s all made literal by the ending beat where we see the end reconciliation between Barley and his father from Ian’s POV at a great distance. Here it is, the most cathartic moment of the film, and we understand he has to let it go. But the audience is trapped with him. I mean, have we not come to like Barley? Can we not be with him in this moment? I mean, we got to be with the mom and the manticore?

Which brings up a good topic with mom, actually. I really have no idea what she thinks about this resurrection or her own relationship with her husband (or how her new boyfriend would feel). She just gets reduced to this image of someone who would do anything “for my boys.” Even her ending heroic beat isn’t actually different characterization. I know she theoretically has some other life, but her entire personality (that is her wants and feelings) is just defined in the way she cares for Ian. Like-wise, the movie seems to forget that Ian’s dad really wants to get to know him, too. And again, for a film that’s ostensibly a two-hander, it doesn’t really get into Barley’s psychology or dramatization at all. 

We are introduced to a loud, brash, overexcited nerd who is way into fantasy… and that’s who he stays. It’s a static journey where he doesn’t learn anything. The “I was never scared again!” moment which already solves everything that could be introduced conflict-wise in the story. And you realize that memory only exists because the story has to bend over backwards to fit into Ian’s arc: Barley has to be the one to teach Ian not to be scared, simply by existing as that example. But when you start pulling apart the knot, you can see the way the movie is secretly fixated on some problematic points of function. 

So let’s ask the final question…

What are the alternative paths?

For starters, let’s bounce some ideas that would establish more conflict in the opening. Just think of anything tangible! Like what if Barley and Ian were now going to school together for the first time? Barley is a big dorky senior and this is Ian’s first year in High School, where he now wants to try and be cool or something. Whatever ways they could be friendly and nice to each in private (and make sure that connection is genuine, as to show that there definitely is love under there), suddenly those things would be put under the microscope of social pressure. Now, those differences could be so much more impactful. And before Barley embarrasses Ian, we should establish that he’s actually dreading being embarrassed by him beforehand. It’s all about communicating both the dynamic between them and what’s going into their head spaces. 

And whatever is the big fight moment that happens? It should be happening right here early in the film. It should be something where Ian knows he has gone to far. Something to show that Barley can be hurt and sad right from the start. And so when they get their quest to see their dad, they’re starting in a place where they’re furthest away from each other and mad at one another. And along the way you can show the idea that Barley can be upset that Ian can just DO magic for no reason (something he’s always wanted). And let’s actually dramatize the reasons that Ian feels like he needs to come out of his shell or be a different person. Giving him a different personality or ANY personality would do. Also, if the school is going to be the final showdown? Then the showdown has to be integral to the established conflicts at the beginning. The action should rely on the social metaphors of fitting in at school. And rather than just seeing some token mural or a fountain, there could be so many ways of better integrating these into devices into the school in those opening scenes. But let’s go to an even deeper level in changing the set-up…

What if you focus the entire movie on Barley’s journey? 

What if you take that fourth memory and put it at the beginning? What if you tell the story of a character feeling longing and regret? A character who later comes up with coping mechanics needs to “believe in magic” to make the connection to the hobby their dad loved? It tracks psychologically, at least, right? Then what happens if it’s an investigation into their father’s life and discovering more about who he really was? And having this wanting character finally get the goodbye catharsis he always needed is an amazing moment of transcendence. 

“But that’s not wha the movie is about!” you may shout. But again, the movie agrees with this sentiment of his journey being important, which is why Ian gives Barley the opportunity. Which means it’s okay to have this happen on screen. As an audience member, we all have those kinds of experiences where we never get to make peace the way we wanted. But movies are a place that this can happen. It really is okay to show it. But I understand this change would bring up more questions… 

Like how does Ian’s character fit into Barley’s journey? What would provide a good foil in a brother? You could find answers to those questions, or heck, maybe it’s keeping the dynamic as is and simply giving that foundational young memory of “not getting to say goodbye” to Ian? Or heck, maybe there’s even a version of this ending where all three of them (Ian, Barley, and Dad) get to meet. Imagine their dad, worried that Ian grew up without a father. And him getting to tell that very dad that Barley was the one who looked out for him? There’s catharsis in every direction there, too.

The one thing is I understand that I can go down the line and ask a million questions which would just bring up a million other problems that need solutions. But that’s what writing is: a constant process of bringing up new pathways and trying to find solutions. We settle on specific choices because of who we are and what we want to say, but ultimately all of it is about trying to set up those moments of transcendence and ultimately making them in tune with themes that resonate right into our own lives… which brings us right back to these questions:

Why is this the main quest? 

What is the moment of transcendence?

What is the core driving conflict? 

Why is THIS film in THIS setting? 

Why this ending? AKA Why this beginning? 

Why is this person the main character?

What are the alternative paths?

It’s not that I feel I have the exact answers, nor do I feel like the film fails to answer them in some strong ways. It’s just that I feel like if Onward could answer these seven questions in ever so slightly better ways than it currently does, then we’d have another one of those amazing Pixar movies that elevates to transcendent status. But there’s nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to “pretty close.” After all, this is not that kind of discussion. The point of this column is just to remind us that storytelling is a hard-as-heck process. But asking the right questions? The deepest, most essential and elemental ones to the story?

That’s how you get to the best end of your journey.


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