Building Entertainment: The films of the Walt Disney Studio. Pixar edition. Onward

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Onward

Year: 2020

Budget:  $175–200 million

Box office: $103.2 million. The film was only in release for a few weeks before movie theatres closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic

Plot: In a world inhabited by mythical creatures, magic was commonplace several millennia ago, though difficult to master. After technological advances over the centuries, magic became obsolete and was largely discarded.


In the modern day, two elf brothers, Ian and Barley Lightfoot – the former a high-schooler lacking self-confidence, and the latter a history and role-playing game fanatic – live in the city of New Mushroomton. Their father Wilden died of a severe illness shortly before Ian was born, and their mother Laurel has a new boyfriend, centaur police officer Colt Bronco, whom Ian and Barley dislike. On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, Laurel gives the brothers a gift from Wilden: a magical staff, a rare gem, and a letter describing a “visitation spell” that can resurrect their father for a single day.


Ian accidentally succeeds in casting the spell, but only the lower half of Wilden’s body is reformed before the gem disintegrates. The brothers embark on a quest to acquire another gem and complete the spell, taking Barley’s beloved van “Guinevere”. Finding the boys gone, Laurel leaves to find them.


Ian and Barley visit the Manticore’s Tavern, named for a monster possessing a map to the gem. The tavern has become a family restaurant managed by the Manticore, legally named The Manticore, also known as “Corey”. Arguing with Ian over the map, The Manticore realizes how boring her life has become and drives the customers away in a fit of rage, accidentally setting fire to the restaurant and the map. The brothers’ only clue to the gem is a children’s menu suggesting “Raven’s Point”, a nearby mountain. Laurel later arrives at the scene and befriends The Manticore, who agrees to help her. The Manticore warns that the brothers’ journey may awaken a curse that can only be defeated by her special sword, which she and Laurel steal from a pawn shop.


Traveling to the mountains, Ian and Barley narrowly escape the police and a motorcycle gang of pixies, relying on Ian’s newly awakened spell-casting abilities and Barley’s role-playing game instincts. “Raven’s Point” leads them on a trail indicated by a series of ravenstatues, but Colt follows them, calling in reinforcements. Barley sacrifices Guinevere to cause a landslide, blocking their pursuers. Following the statues, the brothers descend through a cave and avoid a series of traps and deadly creatures, during which Barley reveals to Ian that he was unable to emotionally bring himself to say goodbye to Wilden when he was dying in the hospital. They then run into one final obstacle, and surface to find themselves in front of Ian’s high school.


Ian, fed up with Barley’s recklessness, lashes out at him for leading them on a wild goose chase and walks away with Wilden. Rereading his list of things he always wished to do with his father, Ian realizes that Barley has been a father figure throughout his entire life, and returns to make amends.


Barley discovers the gem inside a historic fountain and retrieves it, unwittingly triggering the curse The Manticore spoke of, which turns the high school into an artificial dragon bent on claiming the gem. Ian faces the artificial dragon, but his staff is knocked into the ocean; he reforms it from a splinter and continues the fight. The Manticore flies in carrying Laurel, who plunges the magic sword into the artificial dragon’s heart, buying Ian time to cast the visitation spell and fully reform Wilden’s body. Ian sends Barley ahead to finally give his proper goodbye to Wilden, and holds off the artificial dragon long enough for Laurel to destroy it. After Wilden dissipates, Barley tells Ian that their father is proud of him, and the brothers share a hug.


Sometime later, Ian’s confidence and spell-casting have improved and he surprises Barley by painting his new van, the “Guinevere 2” or the Yellow Guinevere. The Manticore reopens her tavern in its original spirit, drawing in customers with tales of past adventures, Ian and Barley have a better relationship with Colt, and the brothers continue questing.

Deleted scene: There was a storyboard scene where Ian, Barley, and Wilden are joined with a goat girl in the journey. Ian and the goat girl come across a booth hosted by three evil mermaids. The mermaids sing their mesmerizing song to lure the two into staying in one of three houses put for rent. Ian tries to silence them with the staff but the spell is too weak. When Ian and the goat girl are finally in a trance, the mermaids place them in one of the houses. The house they are in starts to sink into the ground. The goat girl was omitted because the filmmakers want the film to focus on the relationship between Ian and Barley. The scene itself was removed because the filmmakers felt it was too grim.


Background: The film was inspired by the death of Dan Scanlon’s father, when he and his brother were younger, and their relationship. He decided to write the story after hearing an audio clip of his father.


Music: Mychael and Jeff Danna were the film’s composers.

Voice Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus returns as Laurel Lightfoot.

Tom Holland as Ian Lightfoot. He began his acting career on stage in the title role in Billy Elliot the Musical in London’s West End. He rose to stardom for playing Peter Parker / Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero films Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: Far From Home. Holland’s other films include How I Live Now, In the Heart of the Sea, The Lost City of Z, The Current War,and Spies in Disguise. Chris Pratt as Barley Lightfoot. He became knowm for his television roles, particularly as Andy Dwyer in Parks and Recreation  He also starred earlier as Bright Abbott in  Everwood and had roles in Wanted, Jennifer’s Body, Moneyball, The Five-Year Engagement, Zero Dark Thirty, Delivery Man, and Her. He started in  The Lego Movie as Emmet Brickowski, and Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy as Star-Lord, a role he reprised in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and the planned Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. He starred in Jurassic World, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, The Magnificent Seven remake and  Passengers.

Octavia Spencer as “Corey” The Manticore. She is one of two black actresses to have received three Academy Award nominations and the first black actress to receive two consecutive nominations. Spencer made her film debut in A Time to Kill. Her breakthrough came in The Help, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. For her performance in  Fruitvale Station, she won the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress.Spencer received further Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress for playing Dorothy Vaughan in  Hidden Figures, and a cleaning woman in The Shape of Water. She also appeared in the films Smashed, Snowpiercer, Get on Up, The Divergent Series, Gifted, Instant Family, The Shack, Luce, and Ma.On television, she appeared on Mom, Red Band Society, Truth Be Told, and Self Made. As an author, Spencer has created the children’s book series Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective. She has published two books in the series, titled The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit and The Sweetest Heist in History. Mel Rodriguez as Colt Bronco. He is best known for starring as Nurse Patsy de la Serda on Getting On, as Todd Rodriguez on tp The Last Man on Earth, and as Ernie Gomes on On Becoming a God in Central Florida. He has also appeared on Better Call Saul, Running Wilde and Enlisted.

Kyle Bornheimer as Wilden Lightfoot. He known for his roles on Worst Week, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Casual, Playing House, Perfect Couples  Family Tools,  Angel from Hell, She’s Out of My League, You Again, and Bachelorette. Lena Waithe as Specter. She starred in  Master of None. She became the first black woman to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series in 2017 for writing the show’s “Thanksgiving” episode. Waithe is also the creator of  The Cho, Boomerang, and Twenties. She appeared in  Ready Player One, and wrote and produced the crime film Queen & Slim. She had a recurring role on  Westworld.

Ali Wong as Gore. She is noted for her Netflix stand-up specials Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife, both of which received critical acclaim. She is also known for her leading film role in Always Be My Maybe. She is currently a main cast member on  American Housewife. Grey Griffin as Dewdrop. She is a prolific voice actor whose credits include  The Fairly OddParents, Danny Phantom,  The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy,  Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, Avatar: The Last Airbender,  Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi,  Xiaolin Showdown, The Loud House, Star vs. the Forces of Evil, Unikitty!, Scooby-Doo,  Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, Tomb Raider series, Batman: Arkham  StarCraft  and Heroes of the Storm. On November 10, 2019, The Simpsons producers announced that DeLisle would replace Russi Taylor as the voice of Martin Prince, Sherri and Terri, after Taylor’s death in July 2019.

Tracey Ullman as Grecklin. She is known for her series The Tracey Ullman Show, Tracey Takes On… and Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union. Her first theatrical film was a small role in Paul McCartney’s Give My Regards to Broad Street followed by  I Love You to Death, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Household Saints, Bullets over Broadway, Small Time Crooks and A Dirty Shame. Her voice work includes Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and  The Tale of Despereaux. She played Jack’s Mother in the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Into the Woods. Her 1983 debut album, You Broke My Heart in 17 Places, featured her first hit single, “Breakaway”, and the international hit cover version of Kirsty MacColl’s “They Don’t Know,” Wilmer Valderrama as Gaxton. He is best known for the role of Fez in That ’70s Showand as Carlos Madrigal in From Dusk till Dawn: The Series. He was also host of Yo Momma, the voice of Manny in Handy Manny, and has had recurring roles on Grey’s Anatomy as well as The Ranch. He also has a role on NCIS as Nick Torres. Film roles include Party Monster, Beauty Shop, Fast Food Nation, Unaccompanied Minors, Larry Crowne, and The Adderall Diaries. He voiced the character of Prince Charming in the family animated film Charming.

Where in the World is John Ratzenberger?: John plays Fenwick, a cyclops construction worker.

Critical Reception:

  • Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gave it three out of five stars, and called the movie “a likable family comedy that finds an easy rhythm without effort” although felt that movie’s “attitude towards death” is not radically powerful as in Coco.
  • In a same star review Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said “It’s no Toy Story — but the animation juggernaut’s latest, about two elf brothers on a quest, is still worth your while.
  • James Berardinelli, in his review praised its originality, emotional weight and called it “engaging and enjoyable”, and that “There’s something here for everyone”, though concluded that it isn’t a next Disney/Pixar classic.
  • Ben Travis of Empire Magazine gave the film a five out of five stars and said: “Pixar returns with a great big power-chord of a movie — heart-pumping, resonant, and positively harmonious.”
  • Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times called Onward a step back for Pixar, giving it two out of four stars. He said, “The story fluctuates between the uninspired and the just plain weird and then gets even weirder.” While he praised the animation and said that the movie “begins with an intriguing premise”, he concluded that it “doesn’t come close to fully fleshing out the possibilities”.

Legal issues: San Francisco tattoo artist Sweet Cecily Daniher filed a copyright lawsuit against Disney, Pixar, and Onward producer Kori Rae. In September 2018, Pixar rented Daniher’s “Vanicorn”, a van decorated with a unicorn-themed mural, for use in a one-day festival. She learned about the production of Onward in May 2019 and, after seeing images of the van used by Ian and Barley Lightfoot in the film, came to believe that Pixar had copied the design of the Vanicorn in violation of her rental agreement with the company, as well as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the Visual Artists Rights Act, and the California Artists Protection Act. She sought in her suit to prohibit distribution of the film and any infringing advertisements or merchandise. The case is still pending.


The film was banned in the Arab countries of Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, as Specter briefly indicates that she is a lesbian.  Homosexual acts are criminalized in these four aforementioned countries, which are predominantly Muslim, although Kuwait does not criminalize female homosexual acts. However, this ban is not universal, and the film has been screened in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Egypt. In Russia, where the gay propaganda law officially criminalizes the dissemination of LGBT-related content to minors under 18, the Russian dub, handled by Disney Character Voices International, changed the line and avoided referring to Specter with gender-specific pronouns.

My take: Last year my brother and his family went to visit the Picar studios as my sister-in-law has family who works there. They got to see storyboards and character designs for the film (no photography was allowed).

I thought the film was okay. It didn’t really feel like a Pixar film, more like a lesser DreamWorks film. It’s such a high concept, and I feel the idea of fantasy creatures with a modern flavor is something that the Shrek movies already did. Considering the situation with my own father I thought I would be triggered a bit, but it didn’t have that effect on me. The idea of the older brother being a father figured seemed tacked on at the end and not earned.


Available on Disney +?: Onward was released digitally on the night of March 20, 2020 and became available for Disney+ subscribers on April 3, 2020 in the United States and Canada.

Next Week: Well we’re going back into the vault, using the movies from the Disney+ streaming platform, starting with 1952’s The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men