Darkness fills the first frame of Pixar’s delightful new fantasy adventure film Onward. It’s a thematically appropriate choice given the information we receive from the voice-over narration that follows: magic once filled the world but has now fallen into obscurity. Once upon a time, the narrator continues, wizards and witches roamed about casting spells, questing after treasure and defending the weak against the predation of fantastic beasts. But those days of emprise are long gone. Existence now is a humdrum affair, civilization’s vitality enervated by the adoption of easy technology, abandonment of the magical old ways having left behind only a complacently decadent social order of ennui and rising anxiety.
Onward’s main character, Ian Lightfoot, a teenage elf drowning in excessive worry and lack of self-confidence, personifies this state of things. Poor Ian can’t even summon the composure to invite his classmates to his birthday party. It’s the same for almost everyone else in New Mushroomton, Ian’s hometown, too. A universal tedium settles over everything. Even the Manticore, a once ferocious magical creature famed for her courage and audacity, is diminished to a bumbling waitress in the former lair she has converted into an anodyne family-friendly restaurant. The magic is truly gone.
The lack of magic presents the film’s central problem because it tragically precludes Ian from enjoying his birthday gift. That birthday gift is a wizard’s staff with a precious phoenix gem that, when coupled with a magical incantation, will resurrect Ian’s father who passed away shortly before his birth. Laurel, Ian’s mother, has been safeguarding the gift for him until he reached an appropriate age as per her late husband’s wishes. The catch is that the spell lasts only for twenty-four hours. Ian, unfortunately, deprived of magical traditions and heritage, is only able to conjure the lower half of his father’s body with the spell. With only until sundown the following day to conjure the rest of his father’s body, Ian must find a way to summon the magic required to complete the spell if he is to ever attain his lifelong dream of meeting his father.
Ian’s quest is not only a worthy addition to the Pixar canon of heartwarmingly poignant and beautifully rendered storytelling, it is also an elegant cinematic exploration of forward-thinking philosophical conservatism.
In November of 1789, years before monsieur Guillotine’s bloody apparatus earned its unholy imprimatur from the disciples of Le Culte de la Raison, a young man wrote to Edmund Burke, a member of British Parliament, asking about his thoughts on the nascent French Revolution. Burke’s reply, published a year later in book form, surprised everyone. Surely the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, supporter of the American Revolution, energetic defender of limits to royal authority and a figure in good standing with English liberals everywhere would support the French people’s quest for liberté, égalité et fraternité. Not so. If the French weren’t careful, Burke wrote, aspects of the revolution would “extinguish the last sparks of liberty in France, and settle the most dreadful and arbitrary tyranny ever known in any nation.”
Burke’s worry was that France’s revolutionary project of rapid dechristianization and sudden abandonment of the Ancien Régime would result in widespread hysteria and disorder, not progress and prosperity. Embedded within inherited tradition, according to Burke’s analysis, is an assemblage of unseen wisdoms and hidden efficacies. “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors,” he wrote. “When ancient opinion and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment we have no compass to govern us; nor can we know distinctly to what port we steer.” The result for France, Burke foresaw, if they continued on this project of a priori social construction, would be an awesome reckoning, a bloody, savage and swinish convulsion of unrestrained passions.
He was laughed out of town. Claims that he had gone crazy circulated among the intelligentsia. Thomas Paine, in typically blistering fashion, quickly wrote a book against Burke’s ideas. His critics had a point, for a time. La Terreur remained a few years distant yet so both Burke and his warning could be disdainfully ignored. In this respect Edmund Burke is a historical figure similar to Onward’s Barley Lightfoot character. In Onward Barley Lightfoot, Ian’s older brother, is socially ostracized for his devotion to the ancient magical ways. His peers consider him an oddball, what with his crazy role-playing games and encyclopedic knowledge of all things magical. Barley gets the last laugh, however, because it is precisely his knowledge of tradition and magical heritage that empowers Ian’s quest.
Without Barley’s knowledge he and Ian would be totally lost and without hope of ever meeting their father again. All of Barley’s ideas on how to navigate Onward’s hero’s journey come from his extensive experience and mastery of a tabletop role-playing game called Quests of Yore. Whenever Ian and Barley are presented with a problem Barley consults Quests of Yore to find an answer. This problem solving methodology, to the thoroughly modern and secularized Ian at any rate, is extremely suspect. Barley, then, must remind his brother that Quests of Yore is based on real history and magical tradition. Of course it will help them on their quest. Sure enough, to Ian’s surprise, this deposit of tradition proves its worth, guiding the brothers to their objective of locating another phoenix gem to complete the spell that will bring their father back.
Burke would have identified Quests of Yore as one of the “decent draperies of life,” an artful expression he used to describe those ancient wisdoms that, at least as they applied to social and political orders, “made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society.” Danger, Burke warned, lurked in the wholesale abandoning of cultural heritage because those decent draperies serve to “cover the defects of our naked shivering nature.”
We see this in the world of Onward. Without magic society has lost its vigor and excitement. Life goes on without it, of course, but not with the same dynamism and energy. It’s only by the reintroduction of magical ways that things are brought back to life for the people of New Mushroomton.
So it is that the fictional world of Onward shows that the paths of life pass through obscuring thickets, the way forward sometimes an inscrutable circuit the light of reason alone proves unable to illume. Feeble human intelligence soon displays its limits. This is why Burke argued against the revolutionary sentiment of his French contemporaries:
The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught à priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science; because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate; but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation; and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens; and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions. In states there are often some obscure and almost latent causes, things which appear at first view of little moment, on which a very great part of its prosperity or adversity may most essentially depend. The science of government being therefore so practical in itself, and intended for such practical purposes, a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life, however sagacious and observing he may be, it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again, without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.
It is important to note, however, that both in Onward and in Burke, civilization’s vitality is not maintained by a slavish, unvarying devotion to heritage and tradition. Quite the contrary. Burke merely warned against total disregard for cultural inheritance. Instead, he advocated for a policy of “conservation and correction.” Progress, for Burke, is to be made in close consultation with the past on the one hand and a prudent, progressive amendment of the present on the other. He urged, “the use both of a fixed rule and an occasional deviation; the sacredness of an hereditary principle of succession in our government, with a power of change in its application in cases of extreme emergency. Even in that extremity (if we take the measure of our rights by our exercise of them at the Revolution) the change is to be confined to the peccant part only: to the part which produced the necessary deviation; and even then it is to be effected without a decomposition of the whole civil and political mass, for the purpose of originating a new civil order out of the first elements of society.”
The final scene of the film channels this spirit of conservation and correction. Ian and Barley load into Barley’s new van. The van, of course, represents the non-magical technology of the new world. Ian, summoning the old ways, casts a spell on the vehicle so they can fly to where they are going rather than just merely driving there. And so, the incantation made, the marriage of tradition and progress consummated, Ian and Barley lift up, onward, into the future.