One of the best perks of being a parent is seeing your kids enjoy things for the first time. Whether it’s petting a baby bunny, wading in the water, or tasting cake and brownies, the overwhelming joy they experience is contagious. The world is infused with wonder not just for them but for the parent, often in a way we have so long forgotten was possible. These experiences make you question what ever happened to the fascination that we had as children.

So much was new and there was so much to be learned. Seeing a giraffe or elephant at the zoo took your breath away. You were struck with a sense of awe when staring at the stars at night or looking out from a mountaintop. Even the seemingly small joys like seeing your parent return home from work elicited uninhibited elation. And they provoked unfiltered and pure amazement with the world for child and parent alike.

So what happened to us? Where did the excitement with the world go? Was the new car smell destined to wear off once we lived long enough to see the world for how it really is? If having kids seems to give us a little taste of this experience again, could there possibly be other ways to recover the appreciation for life from our childhood?

Cue Pixar’s movie Onward, which, maybe better than any movie I can recall seeing, can point us toward rediscovering that fascination with the world all over again.

more than a story of two brothers

Long ago, the world was full of wonder. It was adventurous, exciting, and best of all—there was magic. And that magic helped all in need. But it wasn’t easy to master, and so the world found a simpler way to get by. Over time, magic faded away, but I hope there’s a little magic left in you.”

Pixar’s latest film begins and ends with these words from a father’s note to his sons Ian and Barley. A note accompanied by the father’s gift of a magician’s staff and a spell that would allow him to visit them for a day, which were left behind for his sons’ use long after he passed away. A gift that, when received as teenagers, would spark an adventure for these two elven brothers.

Their mother cautioned them that he was only an accountant, and that “he got interested in a lot of strange things when he got sick.” She was bracing them for what she thought was inevitable. That this gift was a nice gesture of their dad’s affection but sadly nothing more. There wasn’t really any magic. The world had long forgotten it and failed to even acknowledge its existence anymore.

And so, to their surprise when Ian’s attempt to bring their dad back partially works – bringing back the lower half of their dad – they have to embark on a quest to find another Phoenix Gem to finish the spell and restore the rest of their dad so they can see him face to face before the spell wears off. A quest that provides the setting for an endearing and relatable story about two brothers that is poignant in its own right. A story that certainly jerked a tear or two from me (like nearly every Pixar movie), but also struck a chord even deeper. Something beyond the mere tugging of heartstrings.

I think the writers’ intended to offer much more to their audience. A subtle and hidden message that is so relevant, especially today. A story that has everything to do with rediscovering that wonder that has gone missing.

the pitfalls of modernity

People haven’t always thought about the world in the same way that we do today. It seems like such an obvious thing to say, and yet, it is so hard to step back and understand the very frames or lenses we use today to see the world. Having a child helps you to see it. You get to relive aspects of your own childhood and experience the novelties of life a second time. You may be visiting the beach, lake, or park, or spending time with family like you had done for years before having kids. But suddenly it’s all the more meaningful. The setting hasn’t changed. Your perspective has.

In the opening scenes of Onward, the note from Ian and Barley’s father shows the stark contrast he found between the ways of the past and the ways of today. In the past, magic was integral to the community and to every facet of their lives. But as science offered easier solutions to life’s problems, the apparent need for magic slowly faded away and with it, their ties to it. It was pushed further and further to the periphery of society until it was almost completely forgotten. Magic was still available to them, but they could no longer see it.

Motorcycles, cars, and planes replaced their previous methods of transportation. Sprites didn’t know they could fly and instead started a motorcycle gang. Centaurs, who could run up to 70 mph, gave it up to drive their cars.

Historical architecture was commodified into nothing more than a fantasy version of Chuck E. Cheese. And the ancient fountain which served as a significant landmark for past ancestors was considered an “old piece of rubble” by current citizens and an obstacle to be removed for new construction.

Unicorns garbled down some garbage from a trash can and a mermaid basked in a inflatable kiddie pool in the backyard. This wasn’t how things were supposed to be. And maybe nothing captures this change in culture more than the fact that what was left of magic was now relegated to a trivial board game that only the geeks would take part in.

The writers of the movie attempt to draw a line between magic and science within this movie and the outcomes of society’s dependence on each.

One could make the argument that we, like the citizens of New Mushroomton, are living in the afterglow of the scientific experiment or the Enlightenment. For a few centuries we have attempted to live within what philosophers would term a “modernist” frame of mind. The things worthy of the most study and debate became more and more exclusively devoted to those things that can be measured. Epistemology, or the theory of how we know what we know became all the more important. And therefore science came to the forefront. Anything that could not be proven by the scientific process of measurement and observation, would be of lesser value than those that could.

As a result, we increasingly discovered more of the world at the cosmic and atomic levels and everywhere in between. We discovered and subsequently studied and named phenomena like black holes, quarks, and photosynthesis. But in the process we largely domesticated the incredible complexities of these amazing aspects of the universe. Yes, to make our lives easier and safer, but at some cost. As the power of science was touted more and more the need for grand metaphysical claims diminished more and more over time. Religion and philosophy were pushed to the periphery like magic in New Mushroomton.

Ian and Barley were living in a post-magic world. Well… almost a completely post-magic world. We likewise find ourselves largely living in a society that is very skeptical of any claims to any overarching story or truth. Have we lost something by getting to this point?

the meaning crisis

I can recall talking to a friend a few years ago who lamented that the story he had been told for how to live his life seemed shallow. Here’s the gist of that story our culture implicitly told young people, like himself, to pursue.

“You get a few years of childhood. Then you go to school to get good grades and try to be the best athlete or musician you can be. Then those good grades and achievements help you get into a good college, where you work hard to get more good grades and accrue more achievements. Then you get your diploma which hopefully turns into a job. Then you work for decades of your life until you may be able to retire. Maybe you enjoy some leisurely activites and hobbies along the way. And then you get a few more years to enjoy in retirement before you die. What’s the point? It’s all meaningless.”

Few have the foresight to actually consider the eventual end of their lives and courageously confront that reality. Or maybe we’re scared to. My friend was willing to face it. And the sad thing was he felt he had no framework afforded to him that could infuse his everyday experiences with meaning. What was the grand purpose beyond the temporal accumulations of wealth, prestige, or bliss, if in the end we were to die and cease to exist? Culture told him the story of life was progress, but the story didn’t jive with how he knew it would end.

Couple that with the narrative that comes out of several of today’s big thinkers like Sam Harris. What seems to be one of the major frontiers for science today is the study of human consciousness. But the story that thinkers like Harris are telling thousands of young people are that we are simply a lump of cells with no autonomy or agency over what we think, do and say. That our own experience of agency in our life is an illusion. Every keystroke I hit to write that was just a part of the constantly unfolding process since the Big Bang and I have no control in it. And neither do you with any aspect of your life.

You want to see the pitfalls of a modernist framework of seeing the world? You can find it in these two dogmas we so often cling to. Progress and particles. We are told to hop on and stay on the hamster wheel of life and keep striving for the sake of progress. And then we reduce everything, even our own sense of agency to mere atoms bouncing off one another. And then we wonder why people are taking drugs and drinking to numb their sensations, using virtual reality to escape the reality they find themselves in, and committing suicide at higher rates. We’ve given them a decrepit story to live within and expect them to be happy with it.

Our society is in desperate need of a change of narrative. And it is this sad state we find ourselves in that Onward speaks to.

the most unexpected of heroes

The first time you watch this movie, if you’re like me, you’re probably fixated primarily on Ian’s story. The development of a young man gifted with magical abilities but lacking in confidence into a completely self-secure wizard who saves his family and town. It’s a classical hero’s journey story, like so many we’re familiar with and it naturally draws our focus in.

However, I think it’s Barley’s story that is much more veiled yet valuable to today’s audience. Barley is written off by the viewer early on because he’s the goofball, clumsy, older brother who can’t seem to figure his life out. The two things he’s seemingly most passionate about are his board game and beat up van. He doesn’t seem to have any clear direction in life. He’s an embarrassment to others in town and even to his own little brother. He’s not showing any progress. If anything he appears to be regressing.

We as a society often write off similar people in our community. The ones who fail to launch. Who bounce between jobs. Who don’t reach their potential (whatever we envision that word to mean). But Barley has something else to offer. Something unique to him that the rest of the community needs, including Ian. He even has something that we as viewers probably need.

The completely integrated life that invites others to find the magic again.

When you watch this movie, you will find that Barley far more than any other character helps others bring their life back into touch with the magic they had long foregone. He states to the sprite biker gang that “they used to fly around spreading delight.” A comment that provokes a fight but ultimately leads to the sprites rediscovering their ability to fly.

Barley reminds the Manticore that she isn’t just a restaurant manager but the heroine who wielded the Curse Crusher and led people on quests. And maybe most importantly he serves as the biggest supporter for his younger brother and helps him realize his potential. He helps Ian to see in himself what Barley has always seen in him. Barley is the unlikely hero who revives his family and community. And how does he do it?

more than just a beat-up old van

When the trailer for this movie first came out I was really curious what the title would have to do with the story. Most other Pixar movies have pretty self-explanatory titles to them. Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Up, The Incredibles, and Cars… But Onward is much more mysterious.

That is until you get to the car chase scene with the sprites when Ian has to shift Barley’s van Guinevere not into drive, but to “O for Onward”. You may not have noticed this, but the O was written on duct tape. The point wasn’t that all vehicles in this alternate reality called the drive shift selector position “onward”. Barley had duct taped this over the normal “D” for drive.

And a closer look at the name for his van “Guinevere” indicates the name’s meaning is “white, fair and smooth, or soft.” A fitting name for a van with a Pegasus adorned on both sides. A van Barley constantly referred to as his steed. His proudest accomplishment that he wanted to share with his dad. And the van that Barley sacrificially gives up to help them escape the police. Notice how much of this pivotal scene embraces the magical and mythical elements of what Guinevere represents to Barley.

The sound of a horse in the revving of the engine. The galloping motion and sounds when the tire is punctured by the rock. The van taking flight and the unpaid tickets resembling wings. And then the camera’s focus on the Pegasus adorning the side of the van. This was more than a van. Barley lived a completely integrated life where everything, even his method of transportation was infused with his belief in magic. She was more than just “a beat-up old van.”

His method of transportation was more than a piece of technology helping him get from Point A to Point B. It was so well tied up into everything he believed to be true about the world. His whole life was a quest and Guinevere epitomized this reality.

This movie is similarly laden with seemingly unexceptional moments that become so crucially important and meaningful later. A bag of cheese curls. A splinter from the wizard’s staff. And the reflector that falls off Guinevere.

This movie reminds us that everything can have meaning again if you’re willing to look back in history for what we’ve lost along the way. As Barley says, “On a quest, the clear path is never the right one.” Maybe the clear story our culture is currently telling us to live by may not be the right one. The story of Onward never indicates that science in and of itself is a bad thing. It just cannot be the thing. It asks us to consider that maybe there is a way of seeing the world from the past that can bring the wonder back for us today.

I think that’s what Ian and Barley’s father wanted for them as his dying wish. That gift of a story one can live within may be the best thing we can hand down to the generations after us. Something he clearly imparted to Barley and that Barley then gifted to Ian. A beautiful depiction of the role we can play in helping to restore the lives closest to us and helping all in need.

I think Ian and Barley’s father said it best.

Long ago, the world was full of wonder. It was adventurous, exciting, and best of all—there was magic. And that magic helped all in need. But it wasn’t easy to master, and so the world found a simpler way to get by. Over time, magic faded away, but I hope there’s a little magic left in you.”

I certainly hope there’s a little magic left in us too.

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