How Pixar's 'Onward' And Its Suburban Fantasy World Grew Together From A Seed Of Truth

During /Film's visit to Pixar Animation's campus, we learned all about the unique story process that was utilized for the studio's upcoming modern fantasy adventure Onward. While we learned how the story was written and drawn before heading into animation, we also heard from director Dan Scanlon about the personal nature of this narrative and how it informed both the story of the nervous and introverted 16-year old elf (Tom Holland) and the creation of the fantasy world that has lost the magic it once had.

When Onward was first announced, the hook always mentioned Dan Scanlon's real-life experience of only knowing his father through a tape recording found by another family member. The filmmaker explained:

"The story is inspired by my own relationship with my brother and our connection with our dad who passed away when I was about a year old. He's always been a mystery to us. A family member sent us a tape recording of him saying just two words: 'hello' and 'goodbye.' Two words. But to my brother and me—it was magic."

But in order to take form as the story for Onward, Scanlon and his writers and story artists needed to add some actual magic. "That was the jumping-off point," Scanlon said. "We've all lost someone, and if we could spend one more day with them—what an exciting opportunity that would be. We knew that if we wanted to tell that story that we'd have to set the movie in a world where you could have that incredible opportunity."

So the setting came from an inherent need for magic. And since Scanlon wasn't interested in doing some kind of period peace that created more of a disconnect between him and the perceived narrative, the world of Onward is what we got, and a story of two brothers trying to find enough magic to spend 24 hours with their father is what brings us there.

Though Pixar has dabbled in giving the modern world an unreal makeover with films like Cars and Monster Inc. (and their sequels), this is the first time they've tackled a modern suburban fantasy setting, a world that is full of mushroom neighborhoods, populated by elves, sprites, centaurs, satyrs, gnomes, and trolls, as well as those pesky, trash-eating unicorns and plenty of other mythological creatures.


In combining the mundane aspects of our real world with the more imaginative elements of fantasy, Dan Scanlon realized that this modern suburban fantasy world in Onward had the same problems as their main character, Ian. The director explained:

"They kind of came together when we realized Ian is this character who is not living up to his full potential, who is, out of fear and comfort, not wanting to explore or take risks. The world was kind of mirroring that too. This was a world that maybe got a little too comfortable. It was never to say that this is a world about science or technology being bad. It's really about baby with the bathwater. They've lost a little bit of their specialness in taking the easy route. So over time, over five years, the personal story and the world story came together which I think is ideally is the hardest thing to do and what you want out of a good film."

That link between this fantasy world and Ian (as well as his brother Barley, voiced by Chris Pratt) is the kind of narrative substance that Pixar strives for. And that success is largely tied to the personal inspiration that Scanlon brought to the film to begin with. It's not a fantasy world just for the hell of it, but it serves a purpose for the actual story, not only allowing for magic to exist, but also creating a link between the world and Ian. Scanlon credits Pixar with recognizing the value of personal stories which end up informing the rest of the movie in a variety of ways:

"I think it's great that Pixar really wants to tell personal stories, or at least stories that started off with a seed of truth and honesty, maybe dramatized after that. Chances are, if something has happened to you and you have real questions about it, people in the world are going to have similar questions, even if they don't have the same story. I like to believe that the reason Pixar's stories have endured the test of time is that they're based on questions real people are asking."

Indeed, those elements seem to be what bring tears to our eyes, making our hearts swell with all sorts of emotion. Of course, the audience has to connect with those characters and that world in order for it to payoff. The last time Pixar played in a fantasy world, it was Brave, and it didn't quite measure up to the rest of the studio's filmography. While this feels like a movie that lines up more with the proclivities of a fantasy adventure you might get from DreamWorks Animation, it still has that Pixar heart at the center of it, and I hope that's where Onward will soar.

Onward arrives in theaters on March 6, 2020.