In defence of Onward’s ending

I love Pixar movies. From the studio’s first outing with Toy Story in 1995, to other childhood favourites of mine such as Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo, Pixar built its initial success on original, inventive family stories. Over recent years, however, sequels have come to dominate the studio’s back catalogue. Aside from Coco in 2017, every Pixar film since 2015 has been a sequel. And while I think Cars 3 tremendously improved on the franchise’s previous instalments, that’s why the studio’s most recent film, Onward – which I saw with my sister this evening – has come as such a breath of fresh air. Is it as magical as past efforts? No – but the film’s ending provoked a fierce debate between my sister and I about handling narrative choices; it’s something we need to talk about.

Onward follows brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot who, on Ian’s sixteenth birthday, receive a magic staff passed down by their late father. The staff comes with a powerful gem, and a spell that will bring their dad back for 24 hours. Unfortunately, upon using the spell, all they end up with is the bottom half of their father – a pair of legs. The brothers decide to embark on a quest in the hopes of finding a replacement gem and bringing their father back in his entirety, before the day is up. As is characteristic of Pixar, the film comes to an emotional, tear-jerking climax: the brothers find the gem they have been seeking, but inadvertently release an enormous dragon in the process. With time running out, the boys realise that only one of them will be able to complete the spell while the other holds off the ferocious beast – we have ourselves a dilemma. Much of the film’s emotional weight is tied to this conflict, and its outcome appears to be the narrative choice about which my sister and I disagree.

Ultimately, it is Ian who sacrifices his final minutes with his dad. Trapped inside a pile of rubble following his heroic battle, he can only watch as his older brother Barley speaks to their father for the last time. While, in my sister’s view, Ian should’ve had some time with his dad – or at the very least, seen his face – I was supportive of the film’s bittersweet ending. We both lost our father to motor neurone disease a little over a year ago, so this was of course an emotional moment for us both – enhanced by the excellent voicework courtesy of MCU alumni Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, as well as Mychael and Jeff Dana’s beautiful score. Our disagreement brought questions to light surrounding what constitutes a good ending, what constitutes a happy ending, whether the two are mutually inclusive, and whether a ‘good’ ending is tied to the attainment of character goals or that of personal growth and catharsis.

For some context, Ian was too young at the time of his father’s death to remember him, and it’s understandable that throughout the film he’d strive to meet the man he’s heard so much about. Barley, being a bit older, has a few memories of his dad, the most vivid of which is being scared of visiting him on his deathbed. Ian’s sacrifice finally gives Barley the opportunity to atone for his biggest of regrets – likely some overdue closure. Now, I’ll admit, the film didn’t need to write itself into a corner like this. Although it raises the stakes and makes the film’s final act a lot more thrilling, there’s no narrative need for the film’s climactic battle. The dragon is an unrelated plot macguffin, included to pad the runtime and deliver the ending the writers wanted; an ending that, in my sister’s view, ruined the goal Ian had pursued throughout the film.

While another ending could have been found so that both boys could see their dad, it’s my opinion that this would actually be to the film’s detriment. It would be more satisfying, but melancholy is the emotion that Onward should have striven to muster – and it stuck the landing. As Squidward muses in the closing moments of The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, “After going on your life-changing journey, you now realize you don’t want what you thought you wanted. What you really wanted was inside you all along.” Ian comes to realise that all the experiences he was yearning to share with a father figure, he’d already enjoyed with his brother. Ian comes to realise that he doesn’t need to define himself by his father, who would probably never measure up to his dreams of him anyway. It’s haunting, it’s bittersweet, and it’s great storytelling.

Pixar films are brimming with allegory. They’re personal, emotional tales, told through the magical worlds of toys, monsters, or fish, and no Pixar venture I can think of is as personal as Onward. Director Dan Scanlon drew from his own experiences in writing the film, specifically his father’s death in a car accident in 1977, when Scanlon was only a year old. “I have always wondered who my father was, and that question became the blueprint for this movie,” Scanlon told the crowd at Disney’s D23 conference in 2017. In a more recent conversation with Vanity Fair, Scanlon expanded on what led to the film’s lightbulb premise. In talking to his mother about potential stories, she reminded him that he had lost his father, which Scanlon felt wasn’t sad enough as he didn’t remember him. “That’s why it’s sad,” his mother replied.

In Onward, Ian never gets to see his dad. While a weaker film might have found him a loophole through which to come back (we’re looking at you, Loki), here, he fades away for good. It might not be the happiest ending, but it teaches us a lot. Inside Out, too, acknowledges the importance of both happiness and sadness in a full life. In Cars 3, Lightning McQueen sacrifices his spot in the final race in favour of the young and promising Cruz Ramirez – going against everything he has fought for since the stock car’s first outing in 2006. It’s the step Disney couldn’t make with Frozen. The film’s great, but what message can you take from it? What do you learn there? Sacrifice and loss are often integral to a good ending, and the ‘happiest’ endings aren’t necessarily the best. That’s why, for me at least, Onward’s ending is so good. In real life, when you lose someone you love, they don’t come back. You can’t always atone for the things you said, or didn’t say. Remember those you’ve lost, but also find the strength to let them go, which really underlines the film’s key thematic throughline: moving Onward.