This article was written by Duaa Haggag, LPC. It was reviewed by Issra Killawi, BA, and Madiha Tahseen, PhD.
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Disney-Pixar’s coming-of-age movie Onward (2020) is a powerful reminder of the “magic” it takes to be a family–especially in times of loss. Without being overt, Onward touches upon deep concepts of sacrifice, grief, and trust in ways that are tangible, relatable, and sometimes funny. This movie is an entertaining conversation starter for the whole family, including teens! Here are some themes we can take home from the movie:
Finding Blessings In Unexpected Places
Throughout its storyline, Onward gives us a clear message:
Onward gives us a clear message: Make sure to recognize the many blessings you already have–particularly those you don’t see until you step back and pay attention.
The movie begins with, “Long ago there was magic, over time the magic faded.” As the people of New Mushroomton neglected the ways of their ancestors and succumbed to modern ways of living, they forgot much of the wisdom of their predecessors. Pixies failed to fly with their wings, manticores overlooked their protective fierceness, and centaurs forgot they could run like the wind. Even though the clues to their magic were evident, they failed to see or acknowledge it.
In the same way, Ian overlooked and undervalued his relationship with his brother, Barley. In the longingness to get to know his late father, Ian neglected to see that Barley was trying to do the things a father does– protect him from getting hurt, support him in times of doubt, and sincerely show interest in him as a person. As Ian progresses through his quest, he realizes that the dreams he hoped to fulfill with his deceased father were, in essence, already accomplished through his brother Barley. When Ian was able to transform his mindset to one of gratitude for his family, he was more confident and better able to foster happier relationships.
The Quran relates that this is the nature of humankind. We forget the many blessings that our Lord has bestowed on us, always looking for what’s next or missing. “If you were to count God’s favors, you would not be able to number them; most surely humanity is very unjust, very ungrateful” (14:34). Sometimes we become so accustomed to our current way of living, as did the movie’s villagers, that we don’t take the time to contemplate on the many favors we do have. Like the villagers who forgot about the magic of their ancestors, we often overlook the value of the Quran, one of God’s greatest gifts to mankind, and the traditions of our pious predecessors. But when the town’s residents rediscovered the ways of their ancestors, they were able to live a life of balance, utilizing the good of both the current world and the past. This is the way of the believer: that we seek wisdom wherever it is, whether it is from the past or present.
Grief Manifests In Different Ways
Onward helps us see that grief does not always look or feel the same for each person. While Ian never actually met his dad and has no recollection of him, he still experiences the grief of not having a father in his life. He sentimentally cherishes his dad’s sweatshirt and continuously envies his brother’s memories of their father. He ponders whether his father would be proud of him, which manifests itself in Ian’s personality as doubtful, cautious, and subdued.
While Ian carries the grief of not having seen his father, Barley deals with his grief in a different way. He carries the regret of not having said goodbye to his dying father because of fear. With Barley, this grief is manifested in being bold and adventurous; after his father’s death, he made a promise to never miss out or be afraid again.
Grief is often portrayed as a single emotion (sadness) that eventually needs to be overcome. In reality, grief is a mixture of emotions (including joy) that never truly disappears but morphs into a new, accepted, and beautiful part of the human experience. Onward does a great job showing us the complexity of grief, particularly its positive aspect of connecting and bringing people together. We see this in our Prophetic tradition. Many years after her passing, the Prophet (S) still grieved for his wife, Khadija, and remembered her often. His memory of her inspired him to give gifts to her friends and family long after she was gone.
Life Is All About Trust
A very telling and triumphant moment in Ian’s quest is his cross over The Trust Bridge. The magic of Ian’s Trust Bridge lay in his ability to believe he could cross in every step of the way. In order to overcome his fear, Barley gives him a good tip: visualize the worst that could happen and once you can handle that, anything is possible. Onward’s dialogue on the validity of “needing” a rope to cross was ingenious! The “rope” Ian needed was not physical but metaphorical; this reminded me of the powerful analogy used in the Quran: when we hold on to Allah’s rope, we will live a life of groundedness and balance [3:103].
In fact, the concept of trust is central to our Islamic tradition. Allah ﷻ says “I am as my servant thinks I am.” God asks us to call on Him, with complete conviction that He will take care of us. In the wisdom of true tawakkul (relying on Allah), we are taught to do our best then leave the rest to Him. This mindset alleviates fear of the unknown and gives us the freedom to live with confidence. In an inspiring encounter with a young man, the Prophet (S) teaches the following: “Be mindful of God, and He will take care of You. Be mindful of Him, and you shall find Him at your side. If you ask, ask of God. If you need help, seek help from God. Know that if the whole world were to come together in order to help you, they would not be able to help you except if God had written so. And if the whole world were to come together in order to harm you, they would not harm you except if God had written so. The pens have been lifted, and the pages are dry.”
Check Your Assumptions
Much to Ian and his family’s astonishment, Ian ultimately proves that he had it in him to be a powerful wizard. When Ian’s family sees his hidden talents, they are better able to believe and trust him on his quest. Only when Ian checks his assumptions is he also able to see Barley in a different light: someone who is creative, self-less, and willing to do what it takes to support his family. As a family, sometimes we hold onto our perceptions of each other and this prevents us from seeing our loved ones in a new light.
The Prophet (S) consistently modeled for us to check our perceptions of people, only focusing on what is worthy in the sight of Allah. Anas ibn Malik narrates that the Prophet was sitting among them a group of companions and saw a man who was known for being famous and rich. He said, “what do you say about this person?” They said, “if he speaks, everyone listens; if he intercedes on someone’s behalf, his intercession is granted; and if he was to propose to anyone, then he would get whomever he wanted.” Another man who walked by who was poor and low in society. The Prophet (S) said “What do you say about this man? They said, “If he speaks, no one listens to him; if he intercedes, no one would care for his intercession; and no one would marry their daughter to him.” The Prophet (S) said, “The example of the second person in the sight of Allah is better than the earth full of the example of the first person.”
It’s not our place to judge people or jump to conclusions about their character. Only Allah knows what is in the hearts of individuals: He “does not look at your appearance or wealth, but rather He looks at your hearts and actions.” Let’s get in the habit of perpetually checking our assumptions about others.
Onward teaches us that even when a family experiences the same encounter, each person is impacted differently and has the ability to evolve from that experience in their own way. After watching Onward together, take the time to have each family member share their unique perspectives on different scenes and how it affected them. Tag us with your reflections using #MeaningThroughMovies!