Onward To A Hero’s Quest

Stevie D. Rosenfeld, Author/Editor

     The story of the Disney-Pixar Onward, directed by Dan Scanlon, centers on Ian Lightfoot. With his brother Barley, Ian sets out to learn about his new power and use them to resurrect his father, embarking on an epic Hero’s Journey. 

     Like many heroes, Ian was born under abnormal circumstances. Laurel Lightfoot gave birth to Ian shortly after his father’s death. According to Laurel, Ian’s dad, Wilden, “got into a lot of strange things when he got sick.” Wilden died when Barley was very young, but before Ian ever got to meet him. Ian spent the majority of his life wishing he could have met his father; the feeling that something was missing in his life turned Ian into an anxious and socially awkward person, full of self-doubt. Ian feels that he could never be bold or brave like his father, which is why he is shocked to discover that his father left him and his brother a magic wizard’s staff as 16th birthday present. Wilden left the boys the staff, a spell, and a Phoenix Gem. The spell instructs the brothers to use the staff and gem to bring him back to life for one day. Barley soon realizes that only Ian has the magical ability to cast this spell, and it was his destiny to use magic to meet his father. However, the spell goes wrong, Ian only manages to summon his father from the waist down: all he meets is a disembodied pair of legs. Barley then inspires Ian to fulfill his destiny, and begin their journey to find a new Phoenix Gem to complete the spell.


     Thanks to his obsession with role-playing board games, Barley Lightfoot was the perfect wise fellow to help Ian on his quest. He declared that they must begin their journey by meeting with the Manticore, the only person who knows where to find a Phoenix Gem. In the Manticore’s “tavern” (more of a mystical Chuck-e-Cheese), Ian becomes braver. When the Manticore- “Corey” as she liked to be called- shrugs the boys off and tells them she is too busy, Ian stands up for himself. He “speaks with his heart’s fire,” per Barley’s suggestion, and makes the Manticore realize that she is meant to be helping heroes, not hosting karaoke parties. Though they do find out that the gem is at Raven’s Point, Ian’s critique causes Corey to have a midlife crisis and use her powers to burn down her tavern. But Ian will not be stopped, thanks to his brother’s teachings, Ian uses his newfound bravery to cast a levitation spell to stop a flaming wooden beam from falling on his father’s sentient legs. Barley’s wisdom does not stop there, Barley convinces Ian to take a new path to Raven’s Point, which turns out to hold the magical guidance they need. Along the way, Barley teaches Ian new spells, helps him get over his anxiety, builds his self-confidence, and even gives him his first driving lesson.

     Ian’s journey is fraught with mischief and trouble, but there are two clear villains of the tale. When they began their search for a new Phoenix Gem, Ian and Barley left their house abruptly and in disarray, which greatly frightened their mother. Laurel calls her boyfriend, Officer Colt, for help. He employed his fellow police officers to look for them. Though his intentions were good, Barley and Ian feared that if Colt found them, they would be forced to return home and would never get to meet their father. When they are eventually found by two officers, Barley teaches Ian how to cast an illusion spell, which he uses to pretend to be Colt. This act of cleverness helps the boys escape temporarily, but they are eventually found again. Colt implores the boys to return home with him, but, not wanting to break his rebellious streak, Ian throws his brother and half-father into Barley’s van and speeds away, pursued by dozens of police officers. By escaping the officers, Ian lets the world know that he is not the frightened teen he once was, now he is a strong wizard not to be trifled with. The second villain of the Lightfoots’ journey is not known to Ian, Barley, or Wilden’s legs, but rather is the enemy of Laurel. While searching for her children, Laurel meets the Manticore who tells her what her children have done. Corey also tells Laurel of a curse that accompanies the Phoenix Gem, the release of a “Curse Dragon.” Laurel sets out with Corey to find a magic sword, “The Curse Crusher,” to defeat the dragon. This is how Laurel and Corey become another ally in Ian’s quest.

      Ian and Barley eventually follow the Path of Peril to where they believe the Phoenix Gem is, only to find that they are at an ancient fountain across from Ian’s school, right back where their journey began. Ian is crushed, the sun is setting and they only had a few minutes before their father would disappear forever. Ian blames Barley for this failure; Barley was the one who made them change paths, he was the one who delayed their quest to live out his magic fantasies, and he was the reason Ian would never have a father. This is truly a painful loss of hope for both boys. Barley became erratic, desperately searching and splashing around in the fountain trying to figure out what it had to do with the Phoenix Gem, acting so strangely that police tried to forcibly remove him from the spot. Ian leaves him to his grief, sulking off with his father’s legs in hopes of savoring the last few moments with at least part of his father. In his despair, Ian consults a list in his journal of things he would want to do with his father. The first was to play catch, but before he crosses this off, he remembers using the floating spell Barley taught him to play catch. He checks off the goal instead. The next was to go on a walk, as Ian goes to cross this off he remembers something else that happened on his quest; Barley teaching him a spell that allowed him to walk on air. He decides to check this one off too. He looks down the list; take a driving lesson, laugh together, share my life with him. All the things Ian wanted to do with his father were things Barley had already done with him. This realization is the final bout of inspiration Ian needs to finish the quest.

     While Ian was battling his inner turmoil, Barley had unlocked the Phoenix Gem from the fountain and awakened the Curse Dragon. Laurel and Corey return and fight off the dragon long enough for the boys to cast the spell, and so the final battle begins. Barley offers to distract the dragon long enough for Ian to meet his dad, but Ian says no. Ian tells his brother that he already met his father figure, Barley. Ian would use his magic to stop the dragon, while Barley could do what he never got to; say goodbye. Ian uses all of the confidence and magical ability he gained on his journey to fight off and destroy the dragon; he was brave when he spoke, he had faith in himself, he was honest, and most of all bold, just like his dad. Ian destroys the Curse Dragon’s core just as the sun sets, and Barley lets his father go. Thus, the family begins their journey home. Laurel now has a happy adventurous life, Colt has a new respect for his step-children, Barley takes on new responsibilities in town, and Ian uses magic to make life a little more exciting for everyone around him; the same way his father did.

     Onward is a great example of a Hero’s Journey; it has magic, action, riddles, monsters, highs, lows, and massive obstacles for a reluctant hero to overcome. The Lightfoot family’s journey to meet Wilden seems to be straight out of Barley’s board games. It was a fantastical journey for a fantastic family, and it formed a fantastic hero.