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.