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Pixar's Onward a touching reflection on alienation in a tech-filled world

Landing April 3 on Disney Plus, this vibrant film reminds us not to let nostalgia skew our appreciation of the present.

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Onward

Pixar's Onward explores family relationships and honoring the past while also appreciating the modern world. 

Disney/Pixar

Pixar's latest film, Onward, resonates in an age when modern conveniences sometimes seem to have stripped the world of spontaneity and enchantment. It speaks to the feeling of being separated from the simplicity and beauty of the natural world by bright screens and soaring skylines. But in the end, it reminds us that no matter how much the world changes, some things, like love and family, remain constant.

Following its theatrical release, Onward is one of several recent blockbusters coming to streaming earlier than expected due to the coronavirus pandemic. You can rent or buy Onward now, or watch it on Disney Plus starting April 3.

In the film's opening, we're introduced to a world of bright green fields, vast castles and fantastical creatures such as mermaids, cyclops and dragons. But while everyone is blissfully enjoying the beauty of magic, one discovery shakes things up: the light bulb. With the mere flick of a switch, anyone can now have light without struggling to conjure it with a spell. This sets off a chain reaction, and soon enough, a series of other inventions spring up, from ovens to smartwatches to phones. 

But while these creations bring convenience, they simultaneously kill off a sense of individualism and wonder. Manticores don't use their wings to fly anymore because they can just get around in cars. There's no longer a need for magic, so creatures gradually stop practicing it.

Then we're brought to the present day. It's a world that mixes past and present. Everyone lives in houses shaped like mushrooms that are surrounded by power lines, and historical buildings are converted into restaurants. The plot centers on the experiences of Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt), two teenage elf brothers whose father died when Barley was young and Ian hadn't yet been born. Ian, an introvert who has a hard time connecting with his classmates, yearns to learn more about his dad and strives to be as bold and confident as people say he was.

On Ian's 16th birthday, the siblings' mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives them something from their dad: a letter with a mysterious spell, along with a staff and special gem that let them have one day with him. But when the boys try to cast the spell, something goes wrong and the gem is destroyed before the process is complete. They end up conjuring only their dad's legs and have 24 hours to find another gem to bring back the rest of him before he's gone forever. 

Onward's fantastical undertones and vibrant imagery don't overpower a plot packed with universal human emotion. The film beautifully illustrates Ian's longing to know a man he feels would have shaped him for the better. We see this in the details, like when he wears his dad's old college sweater and eagerly listens to a tape recording of his voice as if he's really there in the room with him. Anyone who's experienced loss will relate. 

Onward

Onward is as beautiful as you'd expect from Pixar.

Disney/Pixar

Onward also vividly captures the complexity of sibling relationships, as we see Ian and Barley try to work past quarrels about everything from directions to ruining each other's things. Themes like love and sacrifice are tastefully and emotionally brought to life through not just vivid animation, but compelling storylines.  

At a time when many millennials seek to bring back elements of the past by purchasing old record players and Polaroid cameras, there are also nods to our current fascination with the past. A cassette conjures memories of simpler times. The old, beat-up van Barley drives calls back to a carefree, youthful energy of former generations. Meanwhile, every modern convenience invented seems to deepen the disconnection to personal identity and the memories we have of those before us. 

But the answer isn't to shun the present and solely long for the past. What Onward does so beautifully is show how to balance what we've lost with the world we live in today. It underscores the idea that only looking back and grasping for what's gone makes us lose twice: first what was never ours, and then what was right in the palm of our hand. 

The film inspires viewers to see traces of our past in the present -- in the people who are still standing right beside us, holding our hands through all the changes and uncertainty. It's a good reminder in a world where change seems to happen at an unprecedented rate, and technology threatens to drive us further away from what matters. As we go onward, we should look to and honor the past without allowing it to hold us back.