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Onward and the Quest for the Father

I wasn’t expecting to see so clear a picture of Jesus in Pixar’s latest movie, Onward, though I ought to know by now that unexpected places are his favorites. He’s always turning up with a wink and a grin when my mind is elsewhere and my defenses are down.

But while I hold Pixar in high esteem, I wasn’t drawn to this story. The landscape was too familiar. Who needs more interstates or cell phones or bustle? Probably my disdain for technology and “progress” and all the unavoidable stuff of life in 2020 that seems worthy of contempt prevents me from seeing Jesus more often. But it feels true that God prefers pastoral settings, in 1811; he is right at home with and easily accessible to people spinning wool or plowing a field. But technology has ejected God from the world. Right? He would never sit with me as I type or chat on a cell phone. Would he?

So there I was, not expecting much, when the movie began and the narrator gave a brief opening monologue. Onward is set in a time and place that has lost its sense of itself. Once upon a time (you know the drill) there was magic. The world was full of wonder and adventure and quests for enchantment, until the quest for convenience took priority. Our introduction to the world of Onward stirs our sense of loss and abandonment. The characters are disconnected from their history and from each other. They no longer know who they are.

This is especially true of Ian, a young elf coming into manhood without ever having known his father. His sixteenth birthday has arrived, and his longing to fill this hole in his heart (his history, his life) has become all but unbearable. He gets out of bed and slips into his dad’s old sweatshirt. He plays a tape recording of his father’s voice. It’s one half of a conversation—a few words, a laugh. Ian fills in the missing pieces in a heartbreaking parody of connection.

If he knew more about his father, Ian thinks, he might know more about himself. When he bumps into one of his dad’s old college friends, Ian presses the man for details. He learns that his father wore purple socks. His father was bold. Ian wonders if he could be bold, too. He sets out for school with that intention, but he fails at every turn. It looks as though a handful of other people’s memories, a photograph or two, and a few descriptors are not enough for Ian to know his father.

Ian’s older brother, Barley, has all the confidence Ian lacks. Barley bubbles with enthusiasm and a clearly defined sense of self. He’s graduated from high school, and now he spends his days rebuilding a dilapidated van and playing an interactive game called “Quests of Yore.” When the boys’ mother gives them a gift held in reserve for sixteen years, it’s Barley who knows what to do. The gift is a wizard’s staff and stone and a spell to bring their father back to life for one day. Barley recognizes all of it. He sees the lengths to which their father must have gone to make this possible.

We’re searching for a Father we hardly know, and the knowledge we have feels on most days like more of a burden than a revelation. But Someone has been with us through the whole outrageous, impossible journey. Helena Sorensen

And Barley knows this isn’t a game; the magic is real. The man himself is materializing from the ground up—brown leather lace-ups, purple striped socks, khaki pants, belt—when the stone shatters and everything stops. Now, beyond hope, Ian has a piece of his father. But the man he’s longed to know has no arms, no hands, no face, no eyes, no heart. So the brothers embark on a quest to replace the stone and finish the spell. It has to happen in a single day, and Ian knows nothing about magic. Fortunately, Barley’s “Quests of Yore” expertise (knowledge everyone considered arcane and ridiculous until now) proves critical to the recovery of the stone. “Trust me,” Barley says. And very hesitantly, Ian does.

Ian practices spells, and Barley encourages him. When Ian fails, Barley says, “Hey, it was a good start.” They retrieve information from the Manticore, escape a gang of biker pixies, and send Guinivere the Van on a glorious last flight. They walk across a bottomless chasm, sail on an underground river, and battle a stone dragon. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, and Ian is clutching his list of hopes. (It’s a real list. He’s written it all down.) He wants to play catch with his father. He wants to take a walk with him, have a heart-to-heart, laugh together. He wants to see his father’s eyes, know his father’s heart. He wants to feel his father’s embrace.

Ian doesn’t get any of those things. Not in this story, not on this day. He is as desolate as we are, lost in a world that doesn’t know itself, burdened with half a father, and the wrong half at that. Throughout his adventure, in fact, Ian’s experience of his father has been a constant frustration. Legs don’t speak. They have to be dragged around on a retractable leash. This father is a hindrance. He’s dead weight. Yet Ian cannot let go of this pair of legs and of the hope they represent.

And what about Barley? He’s not a likely hero. Some of the characters describe him as a screw-up because he doesn’t do any of the usual things in the usual ways. He’s the one who leads Ian off the map. He is also good-natured, encouraging, joyful, childlike, constant, resourceful, hopeful, and fun. For him, the journey is an adventure and a celebration. He teaches his little brother to speak from his heart, to focus his attention, to tell the truth, to use what he has. When Ian steps out over a dark chasm, Barley says, “You can do this. Believe with every step. I’ve got you.” When Ian is forced to drive the van into dense traffic on the interstate, Barley cheers him on. He is with Ian at every step, pointing the way to their father.

And that’s just it. The tale would be a tragedy if Ian never saw the truth. In the final moments, as Ian, in despair, releases his hopes of meeting his father, he discovers that someone has already given him everything he longed for. His brother has laughed with him, talked with him, shared his life. Barley has spoken the words he needed to hear. Barley has never left. In the quest to find his father, Ian was blind to the steadfast presence of his older brother.

That was the discovery I needed, the one that made me cry. In a time and place so marked by destruction and desolation, it’s the discovery we all need. We’re searching for a Father we hardly know, and the knowledge we have feels on most days like more of a burden than a revelation. But Someone has been with us through the whole outrageous, impossible journey. We have laughed with him, learned from him, and shared our days with him. He is no more at home in cathedrals and pastures than he is at our computers, in our vans, in jeans. He wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else. And if on this day we cannot manage to feel the embrace of the Father, the embrace of the Elder Brother will tell us everything we need to know.

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