May 14, 2021 | OPINION | By Emma Logan | Illustration by Xixi Qin
At this year’s Oscars, Best Animated Feature sported nominations of some of the most emotional films of the year. Unsurprisingly, the infamous animation studio Pixar was responsible for two of the five nominations: one for “Soul,” which ended up winning the Academy Award, and another for “Onward.”
If you spent the majority of 2020 hidden away in your childhood home like I did, revisiting both old and new animated movies was a safe haven of comfort and security. At least for me, this resulted in becoming quite familiar with both Oscar nominated films and frankly, “Onward” is better.
“Onward” takes place in a contemporary fantasy world where two brothers seek out a mystical artifact that has the ability to temporarily bring back their dead father for the younger brother’s 16th birthday. “Soul” follows Joe, a middle school music teacher who dreams of his big break in the jazz industry. However, Joe is suddenly faced with his unexpected death and must confront the true meaning of life before his soul moves onto the afterlife.
As expected of Pixar, grief is a major theme in both movies and continues to pull on the heartstrings of audiences the same way the studio has been achieving since “Toy Story” in 1995.
While “Soul” does uniquely touch on the fear of not achieving success or pursuing one’s passion that definitely expanded the film’s relatable audience into an older age range (and should gain credit for such), “Onward” redefines the very presence of adolescent grief in films made for younger children.
Like many Disney movies and traditional fairy tales, the death of a parent is at the root of Onward’s primary plot. However, unlike “Cinderella,” “Bambi,” or “Tarzan,” the protagonist does not simply accept the fact that this experience primarily impacts their life externally, but also explicitly discusses the genuine internal trauma at play when growing up without a mother or father.
The main character, Ian, confronts his growing age and social anxiety by attempting to become as similar to his late father, an idealized role model, as possible before starting another year of high school. Once he discovers a chance to interact with his father from beyond the grave, Ian and his brother, Barley, embark on a mystical adventure full of the normal Pixar hijinks and plot twists that are anything but free from the standard emotional toll the studio’s audience now expect of their films.
Ian and Barley address that their relationship as siblings developed after their father’s death during early childhood and that they must determine who they are and what they mean to one another as young men growing up without a male role model for much of their lives. Although we have seen some similar dynamics in films such as “Frozen” and “Lilo and Stitch,” “Onward” addresses the deep grief of parental loss in the broader adventure that is self-reflection and internal healing, especially for young male characters as opposed to young female ones present in other popular stories.
While “Soul” touched on the same amount of emotional longing, it was put more in the context of adult pain. Animated films have long been the acceptable place for children to see themselves and their struggles on screen. So why should “Soul” be praised so highly for shifting the audience to adults? They have all the other movies. Give the kids an Oscar for once.