Set in a contemporary landscape with fantastic creatures who have forgotten and moved beyond the use of magic, Pixar’s Onward (2020) tells the story of elven brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot. Their father, Wilden, died when Barley was very young, just before Ian’s birth. On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, their mother gives them a letter from Wilden, offering a spell that allows them twenty-four more hours with him; however, there is a mishap, and the brothers have to undergo a quest to complete the spell before time runs out. The brothers thus push “Onward” in a journey of and for faith, completing both physical and spiritual quests, and move to enlightenment, as the quest helps them not only secure their faith but find a reason that faith is vital.
Ian and Barley, like many siblings, argue and bicker. Barley had a chance, as a young boy, to see Wilden on his deathbed. Finding himself too afraid, Barley fails to go in and say goodbye, so he has determined he will never show fear again, even when fear might be a saving grace. Ian, like many teens, is awkward and lacks confidence, and he faces severe doubts as he panics that time will run out before he can have his moment with his father. Neither brother believes he lives up to the other, doubting his own worth and finding the doubts increase as the quest becomes more challenging. However, neither brother should be jealous of the other. Their love supports and strengthens them, and their faith guides them. Their belief in their absent father prepares and sustains them as they progress, and just like Hagar and her son, they are provided for when they seem lost and abandoned, for their voices crying out are heard and answered. Much like the child in that selection from Genesis, Ian, Barley, and their mother are all protected. The desert supports, rather than isolates, and the film’s end, with Ian now using his magic to support his family, has the young wizard helping them find new life, launching a new nation.
In that desert, Ian finds his confidence, his voice, and his faith. In order to cast spells, Ian must believe, but he struggles in finding and expressing that faith--in himself or in a greater power. As a teen, Ian is self-conscious and fears expressing his faith will expose him to others, leaving him bare to potential further ridicule. Having declared himself courageous at all times, the headstrong Barley is so anxious to prove himself and find a quest that he actually has pushed himself to the margins. Like Jeremiah, the brothers both are mocked and made “a laughingstock all day long.” The pair of brothers are rescued from deep waters (both metaphoric and fantastical) through their faith in magic, each other, and the guidance and power of the father. They do not sink or become subsumed; they are saved through belief. In one of the film’s most dramatic moments, Ian must cast a spell which allows him to craft a bridge under his feet. In order for the spell to begin and for the magic to take hold, he must step out over an abyss. Ian’s hesitation is natural; like Peter stepping out of the boat, he has every logical reason running through his brain that he is stepping to his own demise, but there is one reason left that saves him--his faith in a higher power.
As a faithful servant, believing in that which he initially viewed skeptically, Ian has new-found faith and a new way of seeing the world. This faith, which provides and empowers the siblings’ salvation, reshapes their entire world, giving them newfound appreciation and understanding. Ian gains closure, realizing that he was not absent a father after all; Ian realizes that Barley has always served as his surrogate father. As the film concludes, the adventures are only beginning, for Ian is now master of his faith and the magic within, and the brothers inhabit a world that is newly charged and, just as they are, reborn.
Onward reveals that the body may die, but the soul is not killed. The Lightfoots find power in faith and salvation in sacrifice. Ian’s one true goal in completing the quest was to spend time with his father; he sacrifices his time so that Barley may have it, but in turn finds true happiness and life.
As he realizes these deeper truths and possibilities for his own life and for the world he now can lead, he also realizes he must share and proclaim what he believes to others. What he learns in the dark, he tells in the light, for all to see and to share. What he hears whispered, he proclaims from the rooftops for all to know. What seems to be covered, including the sight of his true father and the extent of his own faith-based life-saving/changing powers, will be and is revealed. Ian, Barley, and all of us come to realize the quest is truly an internal one, finding our faith and finding how to tap into our own salvation.
Hugh H. Davis is Director of Albemarle Regional Library and a lay reader at St. Thomas' Episcopal Church (Ahoskie) and St. Mark's (Roxobel). His interests range from Shakespeare and Milton to the Muppets and Doctor Who. He can be contacted at email@example.com.