When Pixar director Dan Scanlon (“Monsters University”) wanted to make a personal movie about the deceased dad he never knew, he turned to his colleagues at the studio for advice. “My dad passed away when I was a year old and my brother was three,” he said. “Who is he and how am I like him? I discussed it with some of the filmmakers and the feedback was: Wouldn’t it be amazing if you had one day with him?”
The result is “Onward” (March 6), Pixar’s first fantasy about two teenage Elf brothers (the MCU’s Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) on a quest to resurrect their dad using a 24-hour magic spell. The trick is that Holland’s would-be wizard, Ian, has no idea what to do, while older brother Barley, the slacker, knows everything about the rules of wizarding and the hidden fantasy world that their civilization has abandoned.
On his 16th birthday, Ian’s mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives him a present from his dad: a magic spell to bring him back for one day. Barley can’t do it, and, although Ian accidentally discovers his latent magical powers, he messes up by having his dad only materialize from the waist down. This sends them on an adventure deep into uncharted territory to complete the spell, which turns out to be a rite of passage for Ian.
“We needed to make a movie where that would be possible, but I didn’t want to do a period piece in a fantasy world,” added Scanlon. “Why can’t it be modern and fantasy? That would be ridiculous and that’s where the humor came on. Ian is not living up to his potential and fears taking risks, and the world was mirroring that too. The world got too comfortable. This is not a movie about science and technology being bad. But it’s about baby with the bathwater: Maybe they’ve lost a little bit of their specialness in taking the easy route.”
Buddy stories might be a staple of Pixar storytelling, but fantasy and magic were new to the studio (although the Oscar-winning “Brave” dabbled in a little magic). And so the biggest challenge was creating a vast world from fantasy fiction, and then populating it with elves, sprites, satyrs, cyclops, centaurs, gnomes, and trolls with human features and expressions. But Scanlon wanted it to reflect suburbia rather than a more typical urban dystopia, where vermin unicorns roam the streets, or a centaur cop (Mel Rodriguez), who’s dating Ian and Barley’s mom, has to be careful of his awkward footing every time he enters the house.
“Let’s create this beautiful fantasy world and then wreck it or add on to it,” Scanlon said. “Add a satellite dish to the roof. Just a little bit of extra remodeling done to the world. It’s more familiar to us.” It’s about control and chaos in both micro and macro ways. “Like the world of ‘Onward,’ Ian has to get out of his comfort zone and has to work a little harder to find his potential, the metaphor for magic in this world,” he added.
The design of the magic was even tied to chaos and how it relates to Ian and his fear of taking risks. “It has this wild electricity or lightning to it,” Scanlon said. “It feels out of control. Ian always feels uncomfortable using it. He has to deal with the chaos of life and that was helpful to us because we could use that for all of the magic we designed. That gives it a continuity. Even the sound design has this chaotic sense of magic.”
Simulated effects aren’t necessarily difficult for Pixar, but there was a whole rule book of magic spells created for “Onward,” and the magical simulations had to be varied, exciting, and funny. “It’s always the simple simulation aspects that you don’t particularly notice, like dad’s leash, that were technically difficult in all those scenes,” added producer Kori Rae (“Monsters University”).
But, as a hero’s journey, “Onward” has nothing to do with saving the world with magic. It’s about honoring a dad’s final wish to spend time with his sons before time runs out. “I love that it is this very small, intimate story told in this gigantic, over the top, huge world,” Scanlon said. “It sneaks up on you, much like life. But, in the end, there’s this sweet point to it all.”