Pixar knows how to dazzle their audiences not only with its beautiful animation but also through its balance of emotion and humor. And it looks like they will do it again with Dan Scanlon’s Onward. The original film centers on two brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) Lightfoot, who embark on a quest to find out if magic still exists to bring back their father, who died when they were too young to remember him.
The story is a very personal one for Scanlon, as it is inspired by his own relationship with his brother and the father they never really knew. The story came about when he heard an audio clip of his father, and from there, he, along with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, wrote the screenplay.
ThatsItLA was fortunate enough to join their fellow bloggers for the Onward press conference where Scanlon and producer Kori Rae talked about the development of the film, and what audiences hope to get out of it.
During the press conference, Scanlon briefly spoke about how he integrated such a fantastical element into a very emotional and personal story. “What if you could meet your late father, what if you could have one day with him, what would you learn, what would you ask,” he said. “And then we added elves and sprites to that.”
Of course, Pixar is well-known for putting an emphasis on crafting a story that draws audiences emotionally. So it comes as no surprise to hear that Scanlon started to write Onward six years ago. It only took this long to produce and then release because of all the time spent on the story, the rewrites, and notes from those working on the film.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is how invested the cast was in Onward. “Because it was based on this personal story that was pretty emotional, everyone was really into it and into the role they had,” Rae said. “Octavia Spencer, she had a challenging role playing the manticore because basically, it is two characters, but she just brought it and was amazing. Julia Richard-Dryfess obviously so incredibly funny and portrayed Laurel Lightfoot in just a really humorous but beautiful way. And then Tom [Holland] and Chris [Pratt] are just amazing. We are forever grateful for how much they invested themselves into the roles, and how they really took the characters and elevated them and make them so much more complex and real.”
Scanlon then chimed in to talk about how Ian and Barley were written differently in earlier drafts. Holland and Pratt’s personalities helped shape the characters into what audiences will see in the film. “When we were originally wrote Ian, he was a little more, I think at times, sarcastic, and Tom brought a sincerity to him and a vulnerability to him that was crucial in a way that I didn’t quite understand. It just naturally comes from him,” he said. “Chris, you know, was very protective of Barley. Barley is kind of a goofball and crazy character, and we write scenes like, ‘and then Barley’s pants fall down,’ ‘and he falls down the stairs,’ and Chris was like, ‘well, he’s not an idiot. He’s a well-intentioned guy who is trying to help Ian.’ He was a protector of Barley as a character as a human being or an elf. That’s what I think in any writing, especially in animation, we live with these characters for a long time, performers come in, and they make them real, and they give them heart.”
And just because it is a film about elves, fairies, centaurs, and manticores, doesn’t precisely mean its less human. Scanlon’s personal story is what makes it so relatable. But there were other genres and settings that he had considered before settling on something fantastical. “We needed a way that this father could come back to life. That was really the reason behind the magic,” Scanlon said. “We could have done a version, and even considered one, where the boys were scientists who built a machine that brought dad back. But magic felt more romanticized.”
But there was a sort of limit to that, which is why Onward is also set in modern-day suburbia. “We didn’t want to set it in an old-timey fantasy world because it is a very modern story, and if these boys had been in robes, and their father was in a robe, it would have been ridiculous,” Scanlon said. “So, we thought, let’s do a modern one. And there is a sort of natural humor that comes out of that, and I think the world mirrors Ian in a lot of ways. The world of this movie is filled with people who have become complacent and fearful of taking risks, and they lost their potential. Ian is a kid who never lived up to his because he’s insecure and fearful. So, it is always nice when the world and the characters can kind of mirror. That and we just wanted to show dirty unicorns.”
And dirty unicorns aren’t the only strange things that are happening in Onward. Part of the film’s comedy comes from how Ian attempted to bring his father back for 24 hours but only ends up with his father’s legs. While all sorts of shenanigans can happen when two people are trying to get a handle on a pair of legs, it wasn’t the only approach to show the character.
“You’d be amazed sitting in a story room with a group of ten or 12 people and having a very serious conversation about that for days, weeks, months. We tried it all,” Rae said. “We thought maybe just a pair of shoes. And then, there was one where the shoes, and then they would get something else that would create a little bit more, so he kinda grew over the course.”
She added, “You know, we like to do weird stuff at Pixar. The weirder it is, the more we know that people within the studio, and hopefully outside, and audiences are going to love it.”
But having Ian and Barley’s father appear only as a pair of legs wasn’t just for comedy purposes, there was something meaningful attached to that concept as well. “We were also thinking that when you are somebody that you didn’t know someone, every little piece you get is special,” Scanlon said. “Certainly, with my dad. Every little piece of information they get, every little object, so the idea that the boys literally have a piece of dad that is walking around felt funny but also lined up with that idea.”
It’s those connections that reiterate the idea of the importance of relationships and support from a loved one. When asked about what audiences should walk away from after watching Onward, Scanlon said, “the film about support, and the people that go above and beyond in our lives to help us become the people that we are today. So it is absolutely about walking out of that theater thinking: who are those people in our lives? And they don’t necessarily have to be family members. A lot of times, they are friends, they are teachers, and I would go one step further and ask how could you be that for someone else?”
Onward is also a bit of a commentary on society’s attachment to technology. In the film, Ian and Barley embark on a quest to rediscover if magic still exists. This quest takes them across the country through highways and roads they’ve never been on and experiencing new adventures. “We certainly did not want to make a movie that was saying technology is bad because technology is how we make our movies. It’s magic in its own way. It was really a softer look at the ease that comes with it, the comfort that comes with it, just not giving up on taking the hard road a little,” Scanlon said. “Challenging yourself a little. As I mentioned earlier, magic is a metaphor for potential in this movie. And when you look at some of the characters in the film, they are not throwing away everything, they are just getting in touch with that challenge in that life, getting outside and trying something new.”
Pixar’s Onward opens in theaters on March 6, 2020.