I knew it would happen. I went into the theater on Monday night expecting it. After all, what Disney Pixar film DOESN’T grab your heart and choke you up a bit?
I was expecting humor (because, HELLO, Chris Pratt playing big brother Barley? Given!). My daughter was gushing over Tom Holland (as little brother Ian Lightfoot). To say she’s a fan would be an understatement. She literally wept in the theater and had to be consoled by other patrons when Tommy boy floated away in a cloud of ash in Tony Stark’s arms during the end of Infinity War. Okay, okay…we all shed some tears during that scene. I’ll give her that one!
All in all, Disney Pixar Onward did not disappoint. After a teeny tiny slow start to the film, I was drawn into the storyline quickly. Onward is the story of Ian Lightfoot and Barley Lightfoot, two elf brothers who grow up without their father (who died from illness before Ian was born, and Barley was old enough to remember him). During the film, Ian is a high school teenager and Barley is in the early years of young adulthood, after taking a gap year before college.
The adventure begins when their mother, Laurel Lightfoot, gives the brothers a wizard’s staff their father left for them before he died. The staff comes with a spell that would bring their father back to life for a 24-hour period. But something goes wrong when the jewel in the staff explodes and only the lower half of their father comes back. This sends them on a journey to find a new jewel and bring their father back entirely before sunset the next day.
But, oh, my heart! *WARNING- SPOILERS!
Throughout the film I was locked onto the idea of the two brothers finding the replacement jewel for the wizard’s staff, bringing their father back to his full form just before sunset, and we would all hear a pin drop in the theater as they embrace during a tearful reunion. A bit obvious, I thought to myself, but after all, this is Disney, and the loss of a parent (or the absence of one at that) is par for the course for most of their films.
Ian and Barley end up back in their town, at a sacred fountain that is about to be demolished, where Barley finds the replacement jewel, and also unleashes a ravenous dragon (more on that in a minute). But all is well, and their father will be brought back to life, right? Not exactly. Here’s where the storyline takes an unexpected, but marvelous, turn. The central storyline of Onward is not about about the chance for two boys to see their father one last time. It’s about Ian’s realization that his older brother has been a father figure in his life all the while. It’s also a storyline of sacrifice. As the dragon is unleashed along with the jewel, Ian chooses to sacrifice his last time with his father in order to fend off the dragon. Earlier in the film we find out that when their father was about to die, Barley chose not to go into his room to say goodbye. In order for him to give Barley redemption, Ian must fight the dragon so Barley can spend one last moment with their father. TURN…ON…THE…WATERWORKS!!!
Speaking of the dragon, it’s slightly intense, but nothing to be too alarmed over. If you have smaller children who become scared easily, just enter the theater with caution. The dragon actually comes to life by consuming concrete and steel from the boy’s high school. Their mascot is a friendly dragon to which the threatening dragon takes a portion of the wall with a mural of the friendly dragon as its face. It’s provides some comic relief.
As with just about every review we post here, and in light of this being a Disney Pixar film, there are major themes of loss. Be mindful of this going in. First and foremost, there’s the loss of their father which permeates most of the film until Ian’s discovery that Barley has always been there in a fatherly role. If you are parenting children who either lost their first parents entirely and have not handled that well, do not see first mom or dad often, or become highly dysregulated after seeing first mom or dad, you may want to consider not seeing this film. If you do, be prepared to have conversations before and after with your children.
I would also recommend anyone who has recently (within the last few years especially) lost a loved one, especially a spouse or partner, take extra caution before seeing the film.
Second, both Ian and Barley are searching for their own purpose throughout the film, until the end. Ian lacks confidence, and Barley lacks direction. Both are redeemed by the end of the film when Barley realizes his role in Ian’s life, and Ian finds confidence in defeating the dragon and sacrificing for his big brother. But, for any of your children who are struggling with these two themes, in particular, this could be hard to take in.
Third, and finally, another area to be cautious of before heading to the theater, is the sibling relationship theme. If your children have difficult relationships, estranged relationships, or no relationship with siblings, beware that this is a heavy tone in Onward. The brothers are close, and of course, there’s Ian’s realization of Barley’s influence in his life. An emotional flashback accompanies this realization, FYI. This could spark some deep emotions in your children if sibling relationships have been hard.
If I’m rating Disney Pixar Onward, I’m giving it a 98% approval rating. It’s good. It’s moving and inspiring. Go see it. Take caution beforehand. You won’t be disappointed.
Onward is in theaters everyone on Friday, March 6th. For more on the film, Click Here.