Once upon a time, the world was full of original Pixar movies. Then came an era dominated by sequels, and fans complained. But just before those supposed dark times came to an end, Toy Story 4 arrived with some of the most marvelous animation we’ve ever seen — and another smart and hilarious and heartwarming story to go along with the technical cinematic wonder of it all. I watched Toy Story 4 again right after watching Onward, the subsequent release from Pixar and the start of their new age focused on original works again, and it puts this latest title to shame.
That’s not to say Onward is bad by any stretch. It’s a very different kind of movie and a much more personal adventure with its own positive themes that are carried through an imaginative story, one that is comparatively simple and more focused on fewer characters and a narrower narrative. Not that far off from the first Toy Story. Certainly, any criticisms, good or bad, about Onward specifically as a Pixar movie calls for re-watches of the studio’s whole library, for better or worse. Including Onward director Dan Scanlon‘s Monsters University, which is an underrated piece of entertainment.
So, I do recommend seeing Pixar’s latest, which is also very entertaining. What else do I recommend next besides binging on 21 animated features? Well: this edition of Movies to Watch After… recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of Onward as I recommend fans go back and learn some film history, become more well-rounded viewers, and enjoy likeminded works of the past, even if it’s the fairly recent past (and in some instances not enjoy but still learn about some relevant junk). As always, I try to point you in the easiest direction of where to find each of these highlighted titles.
Let’s begin with something small and kind of local as far as Disney animation goes. Puddles is one of the first films in a new series called Short Circuit, which is kind of like Pixar’s own SparkShorts program but involves creators at Walt Disney Animation Studios and is less focused on diversity in its talent or subject matter. Instead, the interest, while still meant to highlight new voices, is geared toward innovation in the form. Puddles is also by far the best of the hit-or-miss series (so far). More importantly for inclusion here, it’s a short film that really reminded me of a major theme of Onward.
Written and directed by Zach Parrish, an animator at Disney for the last decade, Puddles takes a rather simple idea and makes it feel much bigger with ingenious execution. A little boy tries to get his sister’s attention while playing on a sidewalk full of puddles, but she’s busy with her smartphone. He’s a reminder that there’s still imagination and wonder in the world to be found outside the frames of our pocket-sized screens. I’ve seen people say Sony’s upcoming animated feature Connected seems to tackle the message of Onward better, but Puddles already does so in a concisely creative way.
The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)
One of the most underseen and underappreciated if not also underrated (the movie was very well-received by critics) movies of last year, The Kid Who Would Be King is the sort of quality preteen-targeted fantasy adventure that we cherished in the 1980s. That was to be expected from nostalgia-driven writer/director Joe Cornish (Attack the Block). If Onward makes anyone think of Harry Potter, the Pixar feature should also remind them of this similar tale of a young boy who finds out he’s destined for greatness as the chosen one within the context of a magic-based world.
What The Kid Who Would Be King shares more with Onward than Harry Potter does is the idea of returning to a magical time and resurrecting that wizardry for today rather than revealing a still-existing magical society going on beneath our noses. And The Kid Who Would Be King, with its basis in Arthurian legend, is closer to high fantasy for kids with its likeminded medieval-minded quest for a MacGuffin. And similar to Onward, its climax occurs at the boy’s school. But unlike Onward, which goes for intimate, family-focused pursuits, this movie has greater save-the-world stakes.
In addition to the short film Puddles, I was especially reminded of another work from Walt Disney Animation Studios while watching Onward, as opposed to any of Pixar’s past features (though many of those came to mind, too). Zootopia is, like Onward, set in a world in which modern society has suppressed the traditional manner of that place. In Onward, mythological creatures lazily use electricity and other conveniences and have forgotten how to use their wings and stopped depending on magic. In Zootopia, animals have advanced from their primal nature so that predators and prey can coexist.
The big difference between the two movies, besides Zootopia having a lot more on its mind and apparently wanting to say something (with debatable political correctness) about racism, is that the old ways are not as fondly resurrected in the story of Zootopia as they are in Onward. The movie’s villain is causing predators to return to their basic bestial behaviors in an effort to frame them as intrinsically too dangerous for society. Onward is, contrarily, critical of its modern life for its dismissal of history and the bygone era of magic and wonder and ultimately supports characters to be free in their beastliness.
About Time (2013)
I probably wouldn’t have thought of About Time as a suggestion if not for Courtney Howard, a critic for Variety and Fresh Fiction whose review of Onward makes the connection to Richard Curtis’ time-travel drama that begins like a rom-com and then turns into more of a father and son story. The latter is the key to the link. “The filmmakers have carefully crafted a heartrending love letter to the magic of rediscovery and the latent powers our legacies hold,” Howard writes. “It’s essentially Pixar’s About Time if Richard Curtis had set his film in an animated magical realm populated with mythical creatures.”
While I knew what Howard was getting at after seeing Onward, it’s still not the most obvious of pairings and not one I’d be comfortable describing as if it was my own idea. So, I reached out to Howard and got this following explanation to share: “Both films share a similar sentiment of a son wanting to spend the most time, bonding further, with his dead dad. Both sons have latent magic abilities unbeknownst to them — Tim’s [in About Time] is metaphysical time travel, Ian’s [in Onward] is wizardry. And both are temporary fixes for greater lessons they’re tasked to learn.”