One of the tenets of Pixar Animation Studios is to tell personal stories, and “Onward” is as personal as it gets for Dan Scanlon. The film, which follows elf brothers Ian (voice of Tom Holland) and Barley (voice of Chris Pratt) as they search for a gem to bring their late father back to life for a day, was inspired by the director’s own life: His father died when he was 1 and his brother was 3. When Scanlon was 16, his aunt and uncle sent him a tape of his dad speaking — which was written into the film — allowing him to hear his dad’s voice for the first time.
“It gets to the very end and my aunt says, ‘Bill, say something into the tape,’ and he says, ‘Hi.’ And they say, ‘Well, say something other than that.’ And he says, ‘Bye.’ That’s it. Two words. But for my brother and I, it was magic,” Scanlon tells Gold Derby during our Meet the Experts: Film Animation panel (watch the exclusive video above). “It was unbelievable, and so that was really the inspiration behind, what if you could get one more day? What if you could meet or talk to this person?”
“Magic” is key to “Onward.” Set in a suburban fantasy world, “Onward” features no humans — just mythical creatures living their best lives in the “real world” — which Scanlon, who also directed “Monsters University” (2013), feels was important for a contemporary tale. “We wanted to be able to bring the father back, so magic was the way we thought would work best and be sort of the most romanticized. But we didn’t want to make it a classic fantasy film that would take place long ago because it’s a very personal, modern story,” he explains. “That’s where the idea of, maybe we could have a classic fantasy film that takes place now, and maybe that’s where the humor comes from — the juxtaposition of magic and elves and centaurs in our world.”
“Onward” ends with Ian and Barley, whose relationship is modeled after Scanlon and his brother’s, setting off on another quest. So could we expect a sequel?“ I don’t know. It’s funny. I feel like there’s so much hope about what they’ll do next and excitement about what they’ll do next, but more specifically their relationship — that Ian is going to start being less embarrassed by his brother and appreciate the brother that he has,” Scanlon states
For the time being, there’s other “Onward” content to tide fans over, including a real version of Barley’s role-playing game of choice, Quests of Yore, and a comic. “One thing that is fun is we have a comic book that Mariko Tamaki, who’s one of the best comic book writers around, and I wrote together,” Scanlon says. “It’s a prequel to the movie that’s all the adventures of the Manticore (voice of Octavia Spencer) and her adventures in the old days.”
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