While Pixar’s newest film had a sadly short run in theaters, its appearance on Disney+ is nothing short of legendary. After it was released on April 3rd, I let my older son stay up late to watch it with me and my husband. Family movie nights and a bit of magic are just what the world needs right now, and Pixar knows how to deliver.
On Ian’s 16th birthday, his mother gives him and his brother, Barley a special gift from their father, who died before Ian was born. It’s a wizard staff, equipped with a phoenix gem and a spell that can bring their father back for one day. But the spell goes wrong, leaving the brothers with only the lower half of their father. Off in Barley’s hunk of junk van, the brothers must go on an epic quest to find another phoenix gem and finish the spell before the next sunset if they want to meet their father.
Onward takes place in a modern fantasy world where magic has faded with the convenience of technology. Pixies form a motorcycle gang rather than use their wings. The legendary Manticore’s Tavern operates more like a TGIFridays. And fantastic pieces of ancient history are being torn down, with only Barley fighting for their significance. But as Ian and Barley go on their quest, more and more of this old magic is rekindled. I love how The Manticore decides to suddenly remodel, and all the Dungeons and Dragons references! But the best magic is the kind Ian and Barley discover in themselves.
Some of the funniest moments in the movie come from the father’s lower half and fake upper half getting the boys into trouble. Ian gives his father a fake upper half made of old clothes and sunglasses that flops around like the running gag in Weekend at Bernie’s. The moment with the dad and the cops cracked me up. And somehow, with only the lower half, the team at Pixar gives the father life, character and connection to his sons. Their rest stop dance party is a wonderful, sweet bit of family magic.
Tom Holland and Chris Pratt’s characters play homage to some of their previous performances. Holland’s Ian is a socially awkward teen who needs to get over his meekness and harness some magic. Pratt’s Barley is a vest wearing, loud, fearless, kinda goofy and weirdly driven guy obsessed with his Dungeons and Dragons/Magic: the Gathering style game, Quests of Lore. While Ian is a bit embarrassed by his older brother and his lack of focus on the real world, I love how the film doesn’t try to fix Barley. In fact, the quest would have never gotten rolling without him.
Ian’s whole life he has been yearning for the father he never got to meet. It’s another one of Pixar’s signature heart tugging motifs that helps us sympathize with Ian and his family. But it’s one thing to long for something you never had, it’s another thing to lose it. His realization and sacrifice for Barley is so sweet and not something I expected to happen. It left me teary-eyed next to my son on the couch.
After the movie was over, I talked by my son about how he’s doing such a great job as a big brother. Siblings often don’t realize the impact they have on each other throughout their lives, but movies like Onward show the importance of that sibling bond and your journeys together. The song in the credits, Carried Me With You, puts it in better words than I can.
“You’re the soul who understands, the scars that made me who I am. Through the drifting sands of time, I got your back and you got mine”