Onward Is Fantastic, But The Grief I Share With My Sister Over Losing A Parent Made It A Truly Special Experience
Grief is a strange thing. I was always told that those who experience it never really get over it, but I’ll be honest I always thought that was a maudlin cliché and that people were resilient enough to get over death. I thought that up until the day my mum died.
You’re probably wondering what this has to do with the latest Pixar film Onward – I promise we’re getting there – but it’s important to contextualise my relationship with grief before we get to the meat of this review because this is a film about the loss of a parent, what that does to a family, and most importantly what that does to siblings.
My mum’s death changed my life in a lot of ways (parents dying will do that to you, unsurprisingly) but the strangest thing about it is the cloud of grief that’s followed me around ever since it happened.
Most days the cloud just hangs there, not really bothering me besides its noticeable presence, while on other days the cloud might rain a bit of a gentle drizzle of sadness on an otherwise fine day. But on the worst days it’s a storm constantly hammering down over my head, reminding me of my loss.
I’ve never really spoken about this stuff before with anyone else, because the loss of a parent is a difficult thing for people to really understand unless they’ve been through it. In fact the only person who really understands how I feel about it is in fact my sister, for obvious reasons.
Set in a fantasy world where, long ago, there used to be wonder and magic – that’s since been replaced by technology and other modern conveniences – Onward tells the story of Ian and Barley Lightfoot (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt), two elf brothers who couldn’t be more different.
Barley is brash, confident, and obsessed with the old ways, while Ian is nebbish, awkward, and just wants to fit in. On Ian’s 16th birthday though, the two are drawn together when their mother presents the pair with a gift from their late father, a wizard’s staff and a spell to bring their dear old dad back to life for just one day.
Unfortunately for the brothers though, there’s more to magic than just waving a bit of wood about and the spell goes terribly wrong, only bringing back their dad’s legs. Left with no other option, Ian and Barley must then go on an epic quest to find a way to bring back the rest of their dad before his 24 hours are up and he’s gone forever.
If you’re reading this then you’re probably well acquainted with Pixar and its ridiculous track record for giving its films incredible emotional depth while also keeping them entertaining, so you probably won’t be surprised to read that Onward is a fantastic film.
I could trot out the old well-worn clichés that will end up on a movie poster – that the film has a lot of laughs and even more heart, that Pixar has loaded every frame with so many sight gags it defies belief, or that the chemistry between Holland and Pratt is sensational – because all those things are true, but that’s not why I liked this film as much as I do.
Onward worked for me because of the relationship between Ian and Barley, two bereaved brothers who are bonded not just by blood but by shared grief, and as an older sibling it was heartbreaking (in a good way) to see that explored in a film, because for the first time ever I really noticed how much the death of our mum had changed my relationship with my sister.
Martin Scorsese once said: ‘Movies touch our hearts and awaken our vision, and change the way we see things’, and Onward has had this effect on me, allowing me to reflect properly on my friendship with my sister in the light of our mum’s death, and helping me realise that part of the reason I’m so close to my sister is because we have this shared experience of losing someone – it deepened and strengthened our relationship.
It’s something I’ve always known subconsciously, but to see those feelings expressed so beautifully on the big screen in such an elegant way was so moving. So obviously I cried during the film, and as soon as I left the cinema I immediately rang my sister to tell her about it because who else was I going to talk about this with?
Strange to think that a 112-minute cartoon about magic elves could have this incredible impact on me, but such is the power of cinema when you have a team like Pixar working on a film.
There’s more to love in Onward than just what it has to say about siblings. It’s a love letter to the fantasy genre, it is beautifully animated and it’s got some great gags in it, but I loved this film because it reminded me that on those bad days, when the storm of grief is thundering away, I always have someone to help me get through it.
Onward is set for release in the UK on March 6.