Nobody could have predicted that a deadly pandemic would sweep the globe this year, shuttering businesses, schools, restaurants, churches, and movie theaters. COVID-19 has halted life as we know it. So how could we have known that Onward‘s theatrical release would last just a week? What I could have predicted though, is the critical response. I was hoping that Dan Scanlon’s second film would avoid Monsters University‘s fate. How could it not? An “original” Pixar film, when most think the studio has lost what made it so exciting and innovative in the great before; a 1980s tinged fantasy adventure; and Pixar’s first with siblings.
Of course those elements aren’t enough to make a good movie. And Onward has a gem of its own to be one. I guess it’s going to join Pixar’s other offbeat treasures, the ones that are perfectly good but not apparently up to Pixar’s ultra high standards: A Bug’s Life, Cars, Brave, Monsters University, and The Good Dinosaur.
Some spoilers ahead!
Pixar films aren’t afraid to confront death. In Onward, the death happens offscreen, and is particularly tragic. A husband and father succumbs to an illness that left him bedridden in the hospital. There’s no magic in that, but a cold reality. He leaves behind his wife and two children: one of them only has faint memories of him; the other has none. This man is Wilden Lightfoot. He studied magic and acquired a phoenix gem that allowed him to create a visitation spell. Its purpose was for him to meet his sons. Ian and Barley recite the spell, but it’s Ian who has the true gift of magic and so he’s able to conjure Wilden. However, it’s only his bottom half that appears.
Now this might just seem like a clever gag, but as one of my good friends noted, it’s a lot more meaningful when you consider how Ian only knows a fragment of his father. It’s also worth pointing out that Ian resembles Wilden, who he never knew; he also doesn’t quite know who he is. Barley takes after their mother Laurel and is fairly confident.
Ian and Barley are wonderful! They continue the tradition of male Pixar characters with authentic and good masculinity. Our Pixar heroes never use force or strength to bully weaker people; the majority of them are softhearted and vulnerable; and they also show a version of fatherhood that all men should seek to emulate. Barley joins Woody, Bob Parr, Sulley, Doc Hudson, Carl, Marlin, Hector, Arlo/Poppa, and Chef Gusteau as flawed, but noble dads and father figures. He’s never bitter or jealous of Ian’s magical abilities. Instead, he believes in him so fiercely and refuses to give up on him.
And Barley is full of wisdom. When Ian is driving, terrified to merge into traffic, tiny Barley yells in his tinny voice: “You’ll never be ready! Merge!” That’s sound advice no matter what we might be facing. During the trust bridge sequence, Ian falls into the bottomless chasm, but Barley assures him: “Now you know the worst that can happen. So there’s nothing to be scared of.”
At the conclusion of their perilous adventure, the brothers and Laurel must battle a dragon. The visitation spell is finally completed, but it’s only Barley who is reunited with Wilden. Ian sacrifices the chance to meet his father so that Barley can say a proper goodbye. Before Wilden died, Barley was supposed to say goodbye, but he was too afraid. And it’s such a heartbreaking moment, when he describes seeing his father in the hospital hooked up to a lot of tubes. From that moment on, he vowed to never be afraid again. And he made good on that promise. We see the events of the film through Ian’s eyes and never get to meet Wilden either. It’s a bit disappointing, but was the best story decision. Ian realized that Barley was the father he never had. I don’t think it’s a coincidence either that Barley is constantly underestimated by the other characters, including Ian. He has a passion for roleplay games and is considered a screw up. But those things don’t define him; his love does.
It’s nice that people are finally waking up to how damaging a lie it is to be defined by your achievements. Onward, like Monsters University, embodies this message. There’s nothing wrong with ambition, but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with a lack of it either. So Barley doesn’t have grand plans for his life; so what? Maybe sharing his life with Ian is the grand plan after all.