In the Pixar movie “Onward” (now available on Disney+), elf brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot head off on a magical quest with a poignant purpose. They’re seeking a rare gem to power a staff that will bring their late father back to life for one day.
One day may not seem like much, but that time is incredibly precious when you’re grieving a loved one and would give anything to enjoy even 24 more hours with them.
The brothers’ “Dungeons and Dragons”-inspired adventure leads them from Manticore’s Tavern to a dangerous cave filled with traps to a battle with a cursed dragon.
Now, if you look at the story from a cynical stance, you might say the brothers’ quest was only half successful. By the time they find the gem and bring their father fully back to life, it’s already the end of the day, and only older brother Barley gets to say goodbye, while Ian holds off the cursed dragon.
However, the movie does not present the quest as a failure. Because even though the brothers’ don’t fully achieve their goal — which is spending a full day together with their late father — they are able to grow closer to each other and find closure about their father’s death.
Despite being brothers, Barley and Ian have wildly different personalities. Barley is loud and outgoing and loves role-playing games, while Ian is more timid and has less self-confidence. Their quest enables them to bond on a deeper level than they had previously, and Ian comes to realize that while he may not have grown up with his father (who died before Ian was born), Barley has been a valuable father-figure in his life.
One of Barley’s greatest regrets is not having the courage to say goodbye to his father before he died, and so at the end of the film Ian sacrifices his chance to meet his father to give Barley one last moment with him.
While overall “Onward” isn’t Pixar’s strongest movie, the ending’s powerful plot twist is deeply moving. It would have been so easy to give the movie a warm and fuzzy feel-good ending, after allowing the brothers to spend a full day of fun with their father, and maybe even allowing him to stay alive permanently.
Instead, this movie dares to give us a more bittersweet and honest look at grief, reminding us to treasure the loved ones we do have in our lives. As viewers, we may feel a little disappointed that we don’t get to see that cathartic moment of both brothers being reunited with their father, but it leaves us with a thought-provoking lesson.
As the brothers learn, sometimes the goal of a quest isn’t the important part. It’s the bonds you forge — and the lessons you learn about yourself — along the way.
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