Our culture has mocked the family, especially fathers, for decades. Even during this crisis when we’ve realized how important families are, some continue to call it a mistake. Pixar’s latest film, “Onward,” finally breaks the mold. If you missed this hidden gem since it came out on theaters right before the lockdown started, don’t wait any longer.
It’s a movie that celebrates fathers and father-figures. It follows two teenage brothers in their journey to find their father. In doing so, they discover old virtues forgotten in their time but necessary for manhood.
Readers beware: spoilers everywhere.
The story is set in a mythical land full of mythical creatures like elves, centaurs, fauns, unicorns, and fairies, who lost their knowledge of magic after the development of modern technology. Think of Narnia turning into the suburbs of Chicago.
They lost the old ways because the new ways were easier. While a spell to ignite a fire was difficult to master, requiring confidence and drive, anyone could flip a switch and turn on a light. Centaurs, which used to run at 70 miles per hour, now cruise the streets in patrol cars, and even fairies have forgotten how to fly. The monuments of the old world were being torn down as the town was forgetting its past and the virtues that went along with it.
Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), a shy and insecure teenage elf, longs to be inspired by the memory of his father, who died before he was born. His older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), is very confident but a bit of an oddball—the equivalent of a Dungeons and Dragons nerd; except that in this world those legends are true. Barley is one of the few who still believes the old lore and hopes to resurrect it.
When Ian comes of age, his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives him and Barley a gift their father left: a magical staff, a rare gem, and a spell that will bring their father back for one day. After the spell goes wrong and they only manage to bring him back from the waist down, they must journey to find a new gem to complete the spell before the next sunset.
Along the way, Ian learns to trust Barley and discovers that Barley was the father figure he had always longed for. Barley taught him how to swim, how to ride a bike and drive a car, how to be confident in himself and be strong. Barley was helping him become a man. Ian’s transformation is complete when he chooses to sacrifice his time with his dad so Barley could have it instead.
While the story centers on Ian, it is Barley who is in many ways the hero. He’s the one with the knowledge, wisdom, and wit to see the journey through, the one who always believes in his younger brother and encourages him to believe in himself. The one who gets the fairies to fly again and the centaurs to run. The one who leads the land in its rediscovery of its nature. He is the father figure, the male role model who leads the way.
Helping them without their knowledge is their mother, Laurel. She is not an overprotective mother who tries to stop the boys in their journey to meet their father. Even when she finds out her boys are in danger, she sees her role as helping them face that danger rather than avoiding it or giving up. She just wants to make sure that they make it to the end alive. In the midst of it, she’s even encouraged to hear that Ian is growing a spine.
In a time men are portrayed at best as fools and at worst as oppressors, “Onward” is a breath of fresh air. The story shows the importance of fatherhood and the consequences of its absence. As fatherhood is to the home, so are ancient values and traditions to the city. Both the home and the city are losing themselves in modern times, and they both have to look back at what made them strong to rediscover their strength.
A warning for parents. There’s a scene where a female police officer makes a passing comment about her problems with the kids of her girlfriend. “It’s not easy being a new parent,” she says, “my girlfriend’s daughter got me pulling my hair out, okay?”
The line got the movie banned in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. It’s a shame. Considering that the movie praises male role models and criticizes a society that has lost its old ways, maybe the line is more subtle than it was intended to be.
During a time fathers and father-figures are forced to stay home with their families in response to this cursed virus, families are rediscovering the value that men play in their lives. “Onward” is the perfect movie to see the positive influence men can and should have on teenage boys and society at large. Maybe it will encourage men and boys to be courageous in these times full of fear.