Onward's Original Pitch Was Almost Too Weird For Pixar

Dan Scanlon's 2020 animated film "Onward" has a pretty high concept: It is set in a world where fantasy creatures such as elves, centaurs, and manticores not only still exist, but they're the primary population, with no humans anywhere to be seen. Centuries ago, they got by using spells and magic, but they eventually discovered that technological advances were easier and more convenient than the mystical arts, and they evolved into a 21st century-like modern day society that pretty much resembles our own

In this world of elven suburbs, a pair of teen elf brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), are gifted an ancient staff and gem with a magical spell that can resurrect their dead father, but only for a day. However, they must embark on a good old fashioned mystic quest when the spell doesn't go quite right, resulting in them only bringing back their dad's legs without his top half. Much of the movie involves the lead characters shepherding around a walking pair of legs. 

It was that last detail that gave pause to executives at Disney. The modern day elves premise was hard enough, but having the story centered on a dead character's disembodied legs was initially one toke over the line. Note that "Onward" also featured scenes wherein a manticore was a manager at a dull, family-style restaurant, miniature pixies drove around on human-sized motorcycles, and a single cheese puff is expanded to the size of a boat. There were already plenty of weird/fun visual gags. 

On Disney's own website, they addressed the weirdness of the premise, and Scanlon discussed how having just legs on screen eventually contributed to the emotional fabric of the piece.

Pants magic pants

Pixar, as fans of the studio's fare know, is rarely uncreative, and running with high-concept ideas is their usual stock-in-trade. When Scanlon talked with Disney, he revealed that their leg-only concept was one of those writers room jokes that spun out into an actual narrative element he wanted to include in the final film. "Initially," he said, "it was one of those ideas we said in the room and laughed, but then we thought, 'Let's do it!'" 

However, Scanlon and the two other "Onward" co-screenwriters, Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, actually put some thought into including just legs and found that a lot of emotional resonance can be derived from such a silly image. Ian and Barley, for instance, get to once again witness their dad's embarrassing dancing, something they feel affection for. Dad's socks, and the way they used to climb around his feet as infants, were vital memories for the characters. Scanlon pointed out that having an ungainly piece of a lost parent was an opportunity to grasp on to whatever emotional connection available: 

"I love how awkward it is, but then you have scenes like when Ian learns his dad had purple socks, and it's that much more impactful. When you don't know someone, you'll take anything you can get. It was the perfect mix of sweet and sincere, yet also fun and awkward."

It's worth nothing that Scanlon, back in 2009, dealt with similar material in a satirical mockumentary film called "Tracy," wherein a team of fake filmmakers delved into the past of a dead children's show host and interview the host's resentful grown son. Dealing with your awkward fantasy dad seems to be a theme Scanlon more gently revisited in 2020. 

Nothing beats a great pair of legs

In a 2020 interview with the Daily Journal of Kankakee, IL, "Onward" head story artist Kelsey Mann talked about having to invent new camera angles to film a pair of legs. Where, for example, were the characters supposed to be looking when talking to a waist? She also used the word "awkward" and the phrase "over-the-butt." Mann said:

"That's the beauty of animation. That was Dan's idea to have a character just be a pair of pants. He thought that had a lot of animation potential. He can't communicate; it's the lower half not the top half. It definitely came with some awkward things. When we started to story board the characters with the pair of pants, we realized, where do they look to address him? If there are two characters talking, we do over-the-shoulder shots. We did a lot of over-the-butt shots. This is kind of awkward. The top half helped when we added [it]; Now they can look at the head. The awkwardness went away. It definitely made us laugh in the beginning."

The strangeness of "Onward" was appealing and fun. Sadly, because of COVID-19 lockdowns, few were able to go see "Onward" in theaters (this was prior to Disney's decision to release their Pixar films on Disney+). The film ultimately suffered because of it, becoming one of the bigger losses for the studio. Luckily, two years on, the film is now available to stream on the platform (and can be rented elsewhere), and audiences will still have a opportunity to discover a sweet, slight, off-center fantasy film with a great central relationship between two brothers. And, of course, a pair of legs.