Film Review: Fathers-Sons, Brothers in Arms – ONWARD has it all!

Ever since I became a father, I couldn’t help but notice that I’ve become hopelessly drawn to stories and films that revolve around the whole father-son, brother-brother relationship. One such recently came on the silver screen and I was glad for the chance to bring my boys to watch it.

Best part was, thanks to the Covid-19 situation, the three of us ended up having the entire cinema experience all to ourselves!

The film? Onward by Disney Pixar. If you have yet to watch it but wish to, you might not want to read on here as major spoilers are coming up!

This animated motion picture, voiced by celebrities like Tom Holland, Chris Pratt and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, took us to a fantasy urban world, where mythical creatures like minotaurs, pixies, unicorns and elves exist in a modern urban setting. There we found a pair of elf brothers, elder brother Barley (Pratt) and younger brother Ian (Holland), who set out on a quest to find an artifact to bring back their deceased father for a day. Ian was born after his father had passed on so he always grew up with the proverbial chip on his shoulder. He always felt like he’ll never quite measure up to anything, and wished with all his heart that he had a father to turn to for love, support and advice as he grew older each passing year.

Oh how I could already relate to poor Ian!

At the time the film’s story was set, Ian had just turned 16 and they were planning to celebrate his big day, even though the socially-awkward Ian was reluctant to have a birthday party and invite his friends from school, despite his mother (Louis-Dreyfuss)’s words of encouragement.

Now Barley the older brother was a major groupie when it came to folklore and ancient magic. He believed that it was absolutely essential to bring back magic to the generally modern population that no longer believed in it. So when their mom revealed an ancient artifact their dad said was only to be given to Ian when he turned 16, Barley immediately sensed with excitement that there would be adventure afoot.

True enough, they learnt that with the mysterious artifact (a magic staff) they could bring back their deceased father for one full day, allowing them to connect with him like never before. Unfortunately, the magic crystal needed to power the staff couldn’t sustain the force of the magic. It shattered halfway in the middle of the magical incantation, and brought back the father only from the waist down! So off the brothers and their ‘half father’ went in search of a new magic stone to finish the job and bring their dad back whole. With just 24 hours to complete their quest before they lose their dad forever, there was, well, no time to lose!

Now you must understand, I’m already sold when it comes to stories about fathers and sons, so I already had no trouble being drawn into the story right away. What I didn’t count on was the surprise twist at the end that left me crying buckets. As said, it was a good thing that the cinema was empty save for us three! Of course, when it came to weeping at the movies, I’ve long since paid scant heed to what others around think of me when I cry a river. In short, I ain’t afraid to let the dam burst in public.

But what opened the floodgates that Friday afternoon at the movies was the marvellous and sacrificial act performed by Ian. Even though the noble quest was for Ian to finally meet the father he never knew, when the crunch came and there was less than 10 minutes before the 24 hours were up, Ian chose to stay behind to fight off the requisite monster dragon (as all such tales must have), so as to let Barley have the time with dad instead!

Why? Well, there were two reasons for that pivotal decision.

Firstly, at one point late in the story, Ian had looked down the list of things he had previously written in his notebook. These were things he wanted to do with his dad at the reunion. But as he looked at each item he wrote, Ian realised that his older brother Barley had already done them all with him. Things like rough play, laughing together, taking walks along the beach.

So Ian came to the realisation that he did actually have, in Barley, the father he so longed for all along. In essence, Ian had never lacked for a male role model growing up, despite his initial thought that he did.

Secondly, he remembered being told that a still very young Barley had never plucked up enough courage to enter the hospital room to say goodbye, just before his father passed away. Ian realised that this reunion could potentially help bring things full circle and give Barley the closure he needed all these years.

At that point in the movie, my eyes just welled up and I let it all spill out right there in the dark and empty theatre hall, with only my sons as witnesses. They too were used to seeing me cry at the movies, and they too understood the significance of that moment. I really couldn’t have asked for a better story to draw us three closer together, and kick off the week-long school vacation where we will get to spend more time together.

After it was over, I reminded my eldest that I hoped with all my heart he will always be a ‘Barley’ to his younger brother, so that I need never worry that they will not love and care for each other long after my wife and I are gone.

So thank you once more Disney Pixar for telling a great tale, one all fathers should bring their sons to watch, enjoy cry and talk about it together for many more father-son bonding moments to come.

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