For the last few weeks, the coronavirus crisis has had us turning inward: into our homes and towards loved ones. It’s this kind of introspection that director and animator Dan Scanlon worked with to create the whimsical, yet deeply personal, world of Onward, Pixar’s latest release.
“After Monsters University, my producing partner, Kori Rae, and I got an opportunity to do something original,” Dan said. “We talked a lot about stories in our own lives. I told her about losing my dad when I was a year old—my brother at the time was three—and how, throughout our whole lives, we didn't know much about him other than what we heard from our mom. We always wondered who he was and how we were like him.”
“That question of, ‘How are we like him?’ and, ‘How would we grow up to be like him?’ became the seed of Onward.”
Dan and his team decided to set this quest in a suburban fantasy world, familiar enough, but filled with creatures and the kind of magic that could grant this premise: What if you could bring someone back for a day?
To Dan, this story could only be realized through animation, and not just because it involved elves and a fire-breathing Manticore. “I think there's something to animated movies in general where, maybe because the characters are elves, or cars, or fish, you tend to go in with your guard down a little bit, thinking, ‘Oh, well this is the kid's movie.’ Or, ‘This isn't for me. I won't relate to this,’” he said. “And then, because there's this separation between you and the characters, you actually become a little more open to experiencing these things through their lives, through their eyes. There ends up being this emotional catharsis. It's like when people use puppets to talk about their feelings - they tend to open up a little more.”
Growing up on Disney classics, Dan didn’t even notice that, oftentimes, there was a missing parent. That was just way he was raised.
“I wanted this to be a movie that would talk to people who have dealt with loss, in particular to kids like myself, who had to grow up in a situation where someone was missing. Hopefully it's a nice, comfortable Trojan Horse to allow kids to think about their feelings and see that they're not alone.”
From the get-go, Dan made Onward with a particular person in mind: his older brother, Bill. “In a lot of ways, the movie was a thank you to him,” Dan said. “For six years, I didn't really tell him much about the movie. You feel like you're creating a surprise party for an individual person.”
Since its release, Dan has discovered just how many Bills there are out there who related to the story. “Sometimes, it’s funny, if you limit your scope, if you think about an individual, you sometimes end up hitting a much larger group of people.”
“I do think there's something about picking an individual in your life that you make the movie for, because chances are there are a lot of people like that out in the world. It helps you create a more specific story, and it helps keep you going in the six years that it takes to make a movie.”
The film’s main character, Ian Lightfoot, draws on elements of Dan’s teenage personality. “[He] is a lot like I was at 16: shy, lacking confidence, super awkward.” For the older Lightfoot, however, Dan took a bit more creative license. “[Ian’s older brother] Barley is very wild, chaotic and overconfident. My brother Bill is a logical, science-minded, reliable person. But Barley and Bill are absolutely like each other in action, meaning they are both very supportive people, and they're both wildly proud of their younger brothers. So it was really about what my brother had done for me my whole life more than the characterization of him.”
What did Bill think when he finally did see it?
“He was blown away by it,” Dan said. “I knew he would like it because he's my big brother and he likes everything I do, which is kind of what the movie is about. He's seen it seven times. That's pretty impressive considering it was only in theaters for two weeks or less.”
It has also changed the nature of their relationship. “We are talking about our feelings more,” Dan said. “There are lots of lovely emails and I love you's going around. That's another big part of the movie: say what you feel to the people you love now, while they're around. Tell them you love them, tell them why you love them. It may seem embarrassing, but there's no amount of gushing and love you can give a family member that they're not going to appreciate wildly. And what are you holding on to it for?”
This week, Pixar’s Onward makes its way to Disney+ after a week on VOD. It’s not the release that Dan imagined, but there’s certainly a positive twist to it. “We worked on this story for years and none of us could have ever imagined this situation. But it's been good to be able to get the movie out to folks in a time where people are desperate for a little escapism, a little entertainment, a little time with family.”