When we marvel at the newest technological wonders, that’s what we say. When people flipped on an electric light for their first time or made their first telephone call across town, it must’ve felt “like magic.” Microwave ovens would cook full meals in five minutes “like magic.” ATMs would spit out cash “like magic.” When I watch commercials featuring self-parking cars, I turn to my wife and say, “It’s like magic!” (“Yes, Paul,” she says with a sigh. “So you’ve said.”)
It’s not, of course. We may use the word “magic” as a stand-in for technology that has made some arduous, time-consuming or previously impossible task into something easy, fast and, well, possible—a shortcut, if you will, to the real work of doing something.
But the folks of Onward know better. Magic, it seems, is hard.
This realm was once filled with magic: The elves and goblins and cyclopses (cyclopsi?) who live there learn about how prelevant magic used to be in their high school history classes. But casting even simple spells ain’t so simple: One wrong word or lapse in concentration might burn your kitchen table to a crisp or send your Aunt Edna floating over the backyard fence. The denizens of this unnamed realm discovered that relying on technology was so much easier, so much safer. Why spend the time and effort of casting an illumination spell—risking scorchmarks to the woodwork and terrifying the family lap dragon—when you can just flip a lightswitch?
Still, technology can’t do everything. It can’t, for instance, cure the incurable, or bring someone back from the dead.
Ian Lightfoot never knew his father. But even so, his dad is one of the central figures of his life. In fact, Ian’s devoted a bedroom wall to him. He wears his dad’s old clothes. Sometimes, the teen elf pulls out an old cassette tape and listens to his father’s voice. Ian longs to be like him, too—or at least, be like the man he imagines him to be: bold. Confident. Popular. Everything that Ian feels he’s not.
Ian’s older brother, Barley, has just a few memories of their father, and he treasures them more than gold. And Ian’s mother, Laurel, tells them both what Dad was like back in the day. Those stories can’t fill the vacuum that Ian feels deep down, but they’ll have to do. Nothing can bring Dad back to life.
Then Ian learns, on his 16th birthday, that Dad saved an extra-special birthday present, just for him and Barley. It’s a staff with a magical stone—one that, if the directions can be believed, just might conjure Dad back into existence for 24 hours. It feels too good to be true. It feels like magic, because it is.
But Barley can’t cast the spell at all, and Ian—newcomer to magic that he is—can only conjure Dad halfway into being before the stone explodes. And while half a father is better than no father at all, Barley and Ian didn’t exactly get his better half. He stops belt high: Dad can’t see. Can’t hear. Can’t talk.
But there’s still hope to bring the rest of Dad back from the great beyond. If Barley and Ian can just find another rare, magical stone, they can complete the spell and spend a day with their much-missed pops. And Barley—an afficianado for the realm’s good-old magical days—knows just what they need to do next.
But here’s the thing: They’re about to embark on a magical quest. And as such, it won’t be as easy as flipping on a light.
It’s not just magic that’s hard in Onward. Change is, too—just like it is in our world. And sometimes, that change is only possible with a pretty big push. Ian’s pushed a lot here. And while not all the decisions he makes are great ones, as we’ll see, they do make him a better person—and they help some other characters find the magic hidden within themselves, too. If you take this story a metaphorical step deeper—as I think the tale itself intends us to do—Onward isn’t trying to encourage its viewers to learn how to cast magic spells, but rather dig deeper into themselves and find the real “magic” within them: the courage to do hard-but-worthwhile things; the wisdom to solve problems in creative ways; the love to sacrifice for others. And let’s remember that the whole quest is predicated on one deeply affirming impulse: Ian and Barley want to see their father again. Onward emphasizes how important dads are. But even more so, it stresses how important—and how valuable—families are, even when they can drive you a little crazy. Brothers Ian and Barley don’t have much in common; and Ian’s often exasperated by his loud, magic-addled and oft-in-trouble sibling. But as the quest goes on, Ian comes to appreciate his brother more and more. Meanwhile, their mother dives into her own quest—to save and protect her boys—showcasing not just her love, but her courage and creativity as well.
For families for whom magic—any magic—is a deal-killer, consider the deal killed. Onward is predicated on the stuff. This is Harry Potter-type magic: You apparently need to have some intrinsic magical knack within you to make it work at all. And even then you need to have a staff, and often recite incantations, to make the spells work. These spells levitate objects, shoot lightning bolts and cause things to change size drastically, among other things. But the central spell in play here—a spell that brings Ian and Barley’s father back from the dead, at least partly—comes with its own spiritual conundrums. If you’re inclined to look at Onward as a glass-half-empty sort of film, that’d be called necromancy: magically bringing the dead back to life. If you’re a glass-half-full sort of person, on the other hand, this plot point seems to confirm the eternal nature of the soul. But regardless, it makes one wonder where, exactly, Dad came from, post-death—a question the film doesn’t address. We see plenty of magical creatures too, of course, many of which have forgotten their magical nature. A manticore (a fire-breathing monster with the head of a lion and a scorpion tail) runs a restaurant. Sprites ride motorcycles instead of using their wings. Many of these creatures have some spiritual underpinnings if you dive deeply enough into the original folklore, but those origin stories have been largely forgotten here. And the film does include a cameo or two from more recent monsters conjured up by the folks behind Dungeons & Dragons. Barley wears a jean jacket with several patches ironed on; one reads “Hades.” We hear some spiritual-sounding exclamations, such as “Holy tooth of Zadar!”
A female police officer mentions her “girlfriend.” Laurel and her (ahem) “mane man,” centaur Colt Bronco, kiss and show affection for each other (much to Barley and Ian’s discomfort). We glimpse a bit of Barley’s rear when he kneels down.
Onward features plenty of cartoonish, slapstick hijinks: Characters fall down and run into things. But you have some more perilous moments, too. Barley and Ian find themselves in plenty of tense predicaments: They nearly drown in one scene, and they’re attacked by a massive creature in another. After someone knocks over several motorcycles, their owners—ruffian sprites—pursue the brothers (and their half-dad) with ill intent. In one scene, they lasso Ian’s arm with a chain while he’s driving on a busy freeway, with the intent of either pulling him out of the van or causing him to hit another vehicle (neither of which are particularly pretty options). We hear that Ian and Barley’s dad died from a lingering illness, and Barley remembers him being plugged by lots of scary-looking tubes and such. A manticore sticks someone in the neck with her poisonous tail, paralyzing the victim for a time. She also breathes fire, setting parts of a building and a character costume ablaze. (She suffers a scratch on her foot in the process.) People nearly fall from seriously dizzying heights. Magical hearts are pricked and stabbed. Buildings are destroyed. Rocks fall. Skeletons litter a dark passage. We hear (and see) how a gelatinous cube will dissolve anything it comes into contact with. Finally, some viewers may find the dad a little unsettling, as he’s running about with just half a body.
We don’t hear any explicit profanities, though quite a few lines allude to them. A few exclamations are left dangling, incomplete, for instance. Someone seems to make a nod toward the s-word when he says “Oh, Shantor’s talon!” A couple of characters say “dang.”
The manticore owns a tavern.
The movie’s plot forces Ian and others to make loads of bad decisions you’d not want your own children emulating, including: breaking the law, running from the police, lying to police, misleading parents, driving dangerously on freeways, stealing stuff, destroying school property and crashing cars. We hear at least one bathroom-oriented joke. A troll acts a bit jerkish to Ian in class, sticking his bare (and presumably smelly) feet on Ian’s chair. Biker sprites prove to be quite obnoxious pests … but the movie intends for them to be so.
For more than 25 years now, Pixar has been the gold standard in family-friendly moviemaking. From Toy Story to Finding Nemo to Up and a host of other films, the Disney-owned studio’s reputation for quality, clean storytelling has been unequaled. By Pixar’s own high standards, Onward is a bit of a disappointment. Some families will have concerns about its magical underpinnings. But Pixar’s latest quest travels to some other unexpected places as well. It hints at profanity. It dabbles in a bit of bathroom humor. There’s an easy-to-miss verbal reference to a same-sex relationship (a single line of dialogue that some in the media have focused upon a great deal). And by forcing its hero to make some dangerous and (some might say) irresponsible chances, it could inadvertently encourage young viewers to do the same. In addition, the story is a wee bit flatter than Pixar’s best: It offers some really nice messages, but this isn’t a film that, like Up or Inside Out, is likely to leave you thinking about it for days to come. For some families, those uncharacteristic negatives will offer cause for pause before viewing Pixar’s latest effort. But Onward is also a resonant and sometimes beautiful story about family—the people we love, the people we sometimes lose, the people who help us all grow and, if need be, those who fill in the gaps. It reminds us that love, like the movie’s magic, is hard. Love involves sacrifice. It can force us into places of discomfort. When we lose someone we love, we feel the hole forever, even if the hole grows smaller with time. And sometimes, in our exasperation and angst with our own loved ones, we lose sight of the qualities in them we should treasure. Onward isn’t as magical as some Pixar movies. But it also reminds us that magic, even showy magic, pales compared to the everyday bonds we share with those we love. It stresses that things of worth need work to make them happen. And it asks us to consider our own quests—quests that, whether we realize it, we’re all a part of. We’re on a lifelong quest to be better people, to crawl a little closer to being the men and women, boys and girls that God originally intended us to be. And we’re to help people on their own quests, too. Perhaps this movie’s title is more than a title: It’s an exhortation to all of us. To move forward. To grow. To help the people around us along. Onward.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.