It was at D23 Expo 2017 that we first learned about Onward – though at the time we really knew nothing about it other than the fact that it was going to mix classic fantasy story elements with everyday suburban life. The project didn’t have a title, or any actors attached, and was really very much in its infancy. Now it’s more than two years later, though, and the film is not only much further along, but just showed off an awesome amount of footage at D23 Expo 2019.
Pixar was a huge part of the live-action/animation presentation earlier today at the all-Disney convention down in Anaheim, California, and in addition to telling us a bit about Soul (which is due out in June 2020), we also got a very special extended look at the adventure that will play out in Onward. Discussing his vision for the film, director Dan Scanlon noted that the movie was very much inspired by his own relationship with his father, who passed away when he was young, and watching clips from the finished product you can definitely see the emotional influence.
The story centers on elves Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), who, despite being brothers, couldn’t be more different; they are truly a perfect introvert/extrovert pair. One thing that they do share in common, though, is that they both miss their dad, who they never really got to know. This all changes, though, on the day of Ian’s 16th birthday.
With all of this set up by the filmmakers on stage, the Onward footage began with Ian and Barley’s mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) going up to the attic to retrieve a present for her kids that her husband had left them before he died. The mysterious object is long and wrapped in a towel, and when the boys unwrap it they are shocked to discover that it is a wizard’s staff.
It’s a somewhat confusing reveal – specifically because their dad was an accountant, not a wizard – but along with the staff is a note that explains everything. It notes that the world used to be full of magic that helped all in need, but that it was hard to master, and so everyone found new and simpler ways to do things. In hoping that magic would live on with his sons, Ian and Barley’s father wrote a visitation spell that would allow him to come back for one whole day and see who his boys grew up to be.
The only way for the spell to work is with an “assist element,” but fortunately dad has also delivered a Phoenix Gem – one of only a few in the entire world. Barley is elated, particularly because he’s a huge fan of old world magic, but sadly the excitement winds up deflating rather quickly. Holding the staff, Barley tries to recite the spell, but nothing happens – no matter how many times he tries (and he tries a lot). There is sincere disappointment in the room, though Ian and Barley’s mom comforts them by saying that it was still a special gift, and that it shows how much their father cared about them.
Later, Ian is left alone in his room feeling melancholy, the staff resting against his bed, when he finds himself reciting his father’s visitation spell. Unlike when Barley was saying the words, though, the stick starts to glow blue, and Ian realizes that something special is happening. He grabs the staff, and as he continues to say the incantation random items in his room begin to float around him. Barley rushes in, and Ian’s dad slowly starts to appear – first his feet, and then his legs.
But then things start to go wrong. What was a blue light from the wizard’s staff turns red, and before long the Phoenix Gem explodes. After a brief moment, Ian and Barley discover that the spell wasn’t a total failure, as their father’s legs have remained resurrected. They can’t do anything that normal legs can’t do, including hear or speak, but they can feel, and Barley is able to reach out to him by tapping “Shave and a Haircut” on his toes. It takes a second, but they eventually feel like their dad knows what’s going on and who they are.
While this by itself is wonderful, it’s not really enough for Ian and Barley, who want to bring the rest of their dad back – but they only have 24 hours to get it done. What they need is another Phoenix Gem, and it’s a quest that Barley couldn’t be more excited for, as he feels that it’s the adventure toward which his entire life has been leading.
That concluded that particular Onward sequence, but the film still wasn’t done showing footage. The next scene shown picked up with Ian and Barley on the road and hitting a metaphorical speedbump. Barley’s van, which he has named Guinevere, is out of gas, there is no filling station in sight, and the canister kept stored in the back only has a few drops left. It’s a serious situation, but one that the impetuous brother feels can be fixed with magic.
Barley has the idea that Ian can use a growth spell to transform the aforementioned canister, and thus increase the amount of gas that it has inside of it. He explains to Ian how to perform the enchantment, noting that it requires pure focus… but that’s not so easy for the younger brother with his sibling won’t stop talking. After about a minute with no effect, Ian is ready to give up, but then he discovers that he actually did do something: he shrunk Barley to be an inch tall.
Like the best of Pixar, what was shown from Onward had a great mix of humor, heart, and creativity – with wonderful energy being injected into the material by the brilliant cast. It definitely seems like a very different kind of project for the animation studio, but excitement is high for the world that is being built and how Ian and Barley explore it.
Thankfully, we won’t have to wait too long to actually see the finished movie. Onward will actually be the first Pixar movie to hit theaters in the first quarter of a calendar year, and is set for release on March 6, 2020. We’ll be keeping a very close eye on the project as we get closer and closer to it, so be sure to be on the lookout for more details, and more of our coverage out of D23 Expo 2019.
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Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.