By Sam Keyes
Pixar’s new Onward, made available early on Disney Plus thanks to the pandemic, is a wonderful movie. Of course I was going to say that. It is the gentle apotheosis of so much fantasy nerd culture — almost like a screen version of the game Munchkin, simultaneously satirical and sincere, comical and epic. And, whether or not the comparison is ideal, it does for boys what Frozen did for many girls: it challenges the sappy cultural obsession with romance, suggesting that friendship and brotherhood are their own legitimate form of love.
But it’s more than a fun take on fantasy and brotherhood. It’s a plea to bring back the magic.
“Long ago, the world was full of wonder.” So begins the prologue. And it seems that we’re in comfortable territory, the fantasy trope of magic overshadowed by technology and science — the narrative equivalent to the assumption that magic is simply science we don’t yet understand. But by the end of the prologue we’ve tossed that narrative aside. Magic faded not because it became irrelevant, but because it was too difficult. We see the struggling wizard finding delight in the electric light bulb, proclaiming, “Tis so easy!” “And so,” the voiceover continues, “the world found a simpler way to get by.” Fast forward to modern suburban life in which elves are glued to their screens, pixies do not remember that their wings were intended for flying, and centaurs think that to go fast they need to drive a truck.
There is so much embedded in these metaphors. Onward is not presented as a “religious” movie, yet the basic premise sounds an awful lot like G.K. Chesterton’s famous quip: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”
The modern world, as it invented the “secular,” emerged from a long process of disenchantment and disembedding. Such, at least, is the story told by Charles Taylor in his now-classic study A Secular Age. Rather than seeing ourselves as part of a world “full of wonder” we became independent agents with the ability to determine meaning for ourselves. “Religion” now names a set of discrete, chosen beliefs rather than a particular relationship to the real that we did not choose.
I don’t want to make Onward out to be some great apology for the sacramental economy. Its goodness derives from the beauty of its story more than its utility for Christian proclamation. Yet the movie’s themes resound with so many contemporary questions about the Church in the modern world. Maybe, Onward wants to ask us, the easy, technological solution isn’t always what’s best. Maybe, as the Manticore remembers, life’s ultimate goal isn’t to be safe just for the sake of safety. Maybe there are untapped magical reserves that can recall us from the numbing effect of technological pleasures.
In the end, I submit, magic is not simply “science that we don’t yet understand.” Magic is magic. It is the mysterious quality at the heart of things, the mysterious nature of things existing rather than not existing, the mysterious role of freedom in a rational universe.
And as a metaphor for what we might call the supernatural or even just the idea of metaphysics (with or without the theorem of the supernatural), pitting “magic” against “science” misses the point. Science can be magical, after all: just ask a 7-year-old discovering the laws of motion through play. The modern world’s rejection of the supernatural is, on a psychological level, the rejection of wonder. We are only allowed to respond to things we can comprehend. Things like sex and love and friendship and work have to be reduced to mere technical, functional realities governed only by impersonal laws with no mystery.
As most of the civilized world sits in quarantine, plagued by one new anxiety after another, perhaps the time is right to remind ourselves that we never understood the world after all. Magic never went away. Indeed, the negative aspects of “magical” thinking have been transformed. The wizards of scientific technology have lulled us into a new kind of peasant superstition: just as, in the pious fideisms of the past, we were not allowed to consider alternatives to an “enchanted” view of the cosmos, now we are not allowed to consider alternatives to the desiccated anti-metaphysic of the secular. But magic, like science, is a threat to such thinking; it insists that we view the world as it is rather than as we would like it to be. And to view the world as it is requires recognizing the inherent limitations of human vision and power.
We live in a story that we did not choose. But what an adventure it is! “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” What a strange world, a world of wonder, that awaits us when we take the difficult path of reality.
Dr. Sam Keyes is professor of theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California.