Onward (2020)

Either Onward wasn’t that great, or I was in a weird mood when I watched it.

Or maybe the previews ruined it. I prefer to watch movies that I know nothing about. Movie trailers that show you jokes from the movie are awful, because a joke is really only funny when it’s a surprise.

Or maybe it’s that I don’t like movies about high school. Onward is about a magical quest, sure, but it is also somewhat about being in high school. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a television or film depiction of “the American high school experience” that bore any resemblance to my own high school experience. Relatability fail. Every time.

Or maybe it’s that the movie can’t be about an epic quest and high school at the same time… too much cognitive dissonance.

Or maybe it’s that Pixar’s charm is fading; too much reliance on a formula? The story did seem to have the odor of plot coupons — not that the brothers had to physically collect things, but they did go through a series of preordained steps to reach a goal. Sure, there was a meaningful ‘inner’ journey, but the outer journey seemed a bit paint-by-numbers.

It’s not that it was a bad movie. It was good. But I couldn’t love it whole-heartedly.

The funniest part of Onward was the scene at the chasm. I laughed so much! But there are some really, really sad moments too… And some cringey ones, which is probably another reason I didn’t like the movie as much as I was hoping to.

Watch on Amazon

See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

My Beat Sheet for Onward

I’m writing this considerably long after seeing the movie. Over a month. So this is what I remember and what other summaries online reminded me about.


The world was filled with magic. But then along came technology, and magic was forgotten… but not actually gone.

Opening Image

A family photo, almost certainly, with dad missing.


It’s Ian Lightfoot’s sixteenth birthday. He’s trying to make breakfast, but his family keeps messing it up. At a fast food restaurant on the way to school, he meets a guy who recognizes the (torn) sweatshirt of his dad’s that he’s wearing. Apparently, his dad was a cool guy who wore outrageous socks. At school he works up the courage to ask some classmates over to his house for a party, but his older brother Barley, who’s obsessed with historically based geeky fantasy games, crumbling local monuments, and related paraphernalia, pulls up in his beat-up van and embarrasses the heck out of him. Back home, Ian trudges up to his room and “converses” with a tape of his dad’s voice, wishing he could have known him before he died.


Ian’s mother digs out a mysterious gift from the attic. The boys’ father left it with her to give to them when they were both over 16. It’s a wizard staff and a magic spell that will supposedly bring him back to life for twenty-four hours.


Barley recites the spell with maximum sincerity, but nothing happens. When Ian tries it, the spell comes to life. A pair of feet, wearing outrageous socks, begins to materialize. Unfortunately, Ian’s arm gets knocked halfway through the process, and the power gem in the staff explodes. The boys are left with a pair of mute and disoriented but friendly and cooperative paternal legs. They need another power gem, and they only have twenty-four hours to restore the rest of their dad, or he will fade away without getting to see them.

Break into Two

Thanks to Barley’s magic-themed card game, the boys know just where to go to start their quest for a power gem. They sneak off together with in Barley’s van and disguise the legs with a torso made of stuffed clothes topped with a cap and sunglasses.

Fun and Games / B Story

They go to the Manticore’s Tavern to get quest advice: a map to the gem. Manticore won’t help. Ian insists, and discovers he can command magic if he really wants to. Manticore somehow sets the tavern on fire. They don’t get the old map, but they get a children’s placemat that holds a clue: Raven’s Point, the name of a mountain.

The boys’ mother has realized they’re missing. Arriving after they’ve left, she teams up with Manticore to find them… and warn them about a curse on the gem they’re seeking. They go and collect Manticore’s sword from a pawn shop.

The van runs out of gas because the gas meter is broken. Ian tries to enlarge the gas can; he shrinks Barley and has to walk to a gas station. At the gas station, they accidentally anger some biker pixies who attack them on the highway. I can’t remember how they get rid of them.

Ian and Barley get pulled over by a cop car. Barley teaches Ian an illusion spell that requires him to tell the truth. While he is pretending to be his mother’s policeman boyfriend, Ian is forced to admit he thinks his older brother is a loser.

At a rest stop on the road, the pants, which can’t hear but can sense music vibrations, start dancing in suitably ridiculous fashion and the boys join in.

Barley suggests leaving the road and heading up a forest path. Ian reluctantly agrees to follow Barley’s instinct, proving that he trusts him. The bumper falls off the van, leaving a clue for their pursuers.

They find a statue of a raven pointing and decide they are on the right track, even though the mountain is way the heck somewhere in the other direction.

At a bottomless chasm where the lever to extend the bridge is on the other side, Barley teaches Ian to make an invisible bridge under his feet by sheer force of belief. Best part of the whole movie, but also nearly impossible to watch, even for someone not afraid of heights!


When boys are caught by the cop boyfriend, Ian pretends to comply and then races away. They keep following the raven statues, but their pursuers get closer and closer. Barley tries to get Ian to magically blast down some rocks to block the way behind them, but Ian can’t manage it. Barley sacrifices his beloved van Guinevere, who seems to gallop into the air, to cause the landslide they need. They continue on foot. (I’m not crying, you’re crying.)

Bad Guys Close In

The boys enter a cave. Time is running out. Ian converts a cheeto into a raft to speed their progress. They have fun and chat together as they ride down the river. Ian learns that Barley acts fearlessly because he had been too afraid to go in their dad’s hospital room when he was dying and missed his chance to say goodbye. They dodge spears. They narrowly escape a gelatinous cube and drowning.

All Is Lost

Emerging from underground, they find themselves back in town in front of Ian’s school.

Dark Night of the Soul

Ian blames Barley for following the ravens pointing instead of going to Raven’s Point. Then he realizes all the things he wanted to do with his dad, he did with Barley.

Break into Three

Barley has gone back to trying to stop the city from destroying an old fountain. He re-examines a symbol on a rock from the quest and decides that it indicates the fountain. Putting the rock on the fountain opens a cavity inside, which holds the gem he and Ian have been seeking. It also releases an angry guardian spirit.


The spirit wrecks the school and takes on the face of the school’s dragon mascot. Ian uses all the magic moves he’s learned from Barley to fight the dragon. Barley takes care of the pants. Ian’s mom and Manticore (who has re-learned how to fly) bring the sword and stab it. Ian decides to let Barley have the last moments with their dad so that he can have the goodbye that he never had. On Ian’s behalf, Barley asks what their father’s wizard name was.


Barley gets a new van, Ian is more confident, Manticore rebuilds the tavern, the boys get along better with their mother’s boyfriend.

Closing Image

A family photo again. Brotherhood.