Faith & Film #1 – Onward

Welcome to a brand new blog here I’m really excited about. I love movies and I know many of you do as well. Over the years, I’ve found that movies have a rich theology in and of themselves. While not everything they teach is valuable, many of the things they share are quite priceless. These short posts will dissect moments from movies (some new releases and some classics) and demonstrate a lesson or two. I’m sure other movie-related posts will follow. I can see several scenarios unfolding where we provide lists of movies worth watching and even reviews. With all that being said, let’s dig into the first movie worth dissecting – Pixar’s Onward.



This movie follows the so-called “epic quest” of brothers Barley and Ian. It exists in a fantasy world where magic and heroism have given way to modernity and practicality. Barley, the oldest brother in the story is portrayed as a caricature of people who play Dungeons-and-Dragons while his younger brother Ian is a shy, backward, intellectual who doesn’t quite fit in (or understand his brother).

Their relationship is somewhat strained due to Ian’s embarrassment of Barley’s goofy interests. They live with their mother after their father’s passing. It’s implied that Ian longs to know more about his dad while Barley has simply moved on. To complicate matters, their mother is dating a police officer who happens to be a centaur (half-man, half-horse). On Ian’s 16th birthday, they discover a secret, their father dabbled in magic and left the brothers a gift – a one-time spell that allows them a day with their deceased father. Like most Pixar movies, the spell and its effects produce a problem our heroes must solve. Barley (the magic-loving buffoon who knows the words to every spell in his mythical RPG) isn’t a wizard, Ian is, and while his attempt to conjure their father’s spell works, it’s not quite right. 

While the story is set in a fantasy world, the heartstrings it tugs at within the viewers are very real. Ian and Barley could easily be thin characters, but their relationship and longing to repair a broken life is very realistic. Their quest is full of self-discovery and a realization that they need each other more than they want to admit. There is a scene at the end of the movie I’d like to discuss. So I’ll give you a heads up – spoilers will follow (if you haven’t watched the movie, don’t read ahead and ruin it).

As the story comes to an end and all looks lost, Ian pulls out a list he wrote when the thought of meeting his father became a reality. It’s a simple list full of things all sons want to do with their father: (1) play catch, (2) have a heart to heart, etc. Sitting on the edge of a scenic overlook, watching the sunset on the one day they had together, Ian starts marking out the things he wanted to do. At first, it looks like a moment of defeat until he realizes, everything he wanted to do with his dad, he had already done with Barley. 

The realization that his brother had been there for him motivates Ian to thank his brother. Before he can, a curse rises from the discovery of the jewel their quest had been based upon. It’s then that a dragon made of cars, stones, bricks arises to keep the boys from finishing their quest. Thankfully, a manticore (a flying lion who breathes fire and wields a sword), and their mom get in the way and distract the dragon long enough for the boys to finish the spell. They get separated, and when the dragon appears to have the upper hand, Ian defeats it just in time to give Barley a chance to say goodbye to his father. That goodbye is significant because earlier on their quest, Barley confided to Ian that when he had a chance to say goodbye to his as a little boy he couldn’t because of the hospital setting. As Ian watches behind rubble, Barley and his father hug, laugh and have the moment they didn’t when he first passed away. It’s a beautifully touching moment for anyone who wishes they had just one more conversation with someone they miss deeply. 

The scene finishes with the boys together one last time on their quest. They stand triumphant, victory in hand, and Ian tells his brother “thank you.” Barley confides in him that their father was a bit of a goofball but proud of them both. The two brothers embrace and begin a new life of mutual love and respect. 

Watching it, I couldn’t help but think about my life. Many times, I have found myself longing for what I don’t have, instead of being thankful for what’s right in front of me. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. I pray we’ll all take the time to learn from a kid’s movie that the life we have is better than the one we long for. That doesn’t mean it’s always fair, it’s simply what we have.

I can’t help but think about Romans 8:28 which says, “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” That verse doesn’t say everything is good (we certainly understand that). It simply says everything works together for good. I pray we’ll learn to take the bad with the good and make something valuable from both of them. It took Ian a while to figure out all he lost brought him all he had. I hope that won’t be the same for us.


Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

About The Merger

The Merger began when Neal Mathis and Matthew Higginbotham sat down to write together. Since then, it's blossomed into so much more. The Merger is meant to be a place where faith and life meet. In these stories, we hope you'll find deep theological value right alongside life-changing practical advice.

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