“Onward”‘s Themes of Loss and Reconciliation Hit Hard

This essay contains major spoilers for Onward, and plot details for About Time and Avengers: Endgame.

When my grandfather died, About Time wrecked me. When my wife’s brother died, Avengers: Endgame wrecked me. And when my uncle died, Onward wrecked me.

Now, I’m an easy mark. I can cry at commercials and Instagram videos. But there’s something about each of these films, and not just that they deal with death and came into my life at rough patches. Part of the plot of each film involves characters getting to do the thing I most want to do in the world: To turn back the clock and get one more game of Ping Pong, one more conversation, one more day with the people I’ve lost.

Onward hit me especially hard, with the wound of my uncle’s unexpected death so fresh. I knew the story would follow two brothers trying to find a Macguffin in order to bring back their long-dead father for 24 hours. I knew there would be plenty of references to fantasy stories and Dungeons & Dragons – not my cup of tea, it should be noted – and some gorgeous animation. But I didn’t expect it to be so moving.

For much of the film, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), are on the road with their resurrected dad. Or rather, his bottom half. Just a belt, khakis, some colorful socks and sensible shoes. Dad passed before Ian was born and when Barley was young.

Almost all their time in the film is spent finding a “Phoenix Gem,” which they must attach to their father’s wizard staff to conjure up the rest of him. Their quest brings them right back to where they started: their boring hometown, near the high school Ian attends and Barley barely graduated from.

When they’re separated by a dragon – who didn’t take kindly to them swiping its Phoenix Gem – they risk running out of time to get their final moments with dear old dad. So Ian, in a stunning act of maturity and sacrifice, fends off the beast to allow Barley to get the goodbye he never got. Being robbed of his moment of paternal comfort after coming so close was devastating enough, but his reasoning gives that decision a bittersweet feeling that made the tears flow even harder. Even though he never knew his dad, he still got all the milestones and affection he needed from Barley. It’s one of the most powerful moments in any Pixar movie.

I didn’t get to say goodbye to my uncle. I’ll never get to have another drink or conversation about movies with him. But I’ll still have my memories of him. Onward helped me remember that, and helped me move on, if only just to go a little further.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.