The director and co-writer of Pixar’s 'Onward' discusses the sometimes circuitous creation of a modern fantasy.
Unlike the vast majority of movies involving elves, the idea for Pixar’s latest animated film, Onward, which opens today in theatres, began with a personal experience. “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,” says co-writer and director Dan Scanlon, who also wrote and directed Pixar’s 2013 hit, Monsters University. “That was the jumping-off point. We’ve all lost someone, and if we could spend one more day with them—what an exciting opportunity that would be. What would you ask, what would you want to learn, and what would you want them to learn about you?”
From that germ, Onward was born. Set in a suburban fantasy world where magic has long been forgotten, the film tells the story of Ian, a teenage elf who lost his father before he was born, and his rowdy older brother Barley, who get the opportunity to magically conjure up their dad using a wizard’s staff their father left as a gift for Ian’s 16th birthday . However, when the spell doesn’t go exactly as planned and they wind up producing only their father’s legs, it launches them on a quest that will test their relationship as they search for a way to complete their familial mission. With the voice talents of Chris Pratt, Tom Holland, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Onward features Pixar’s trademark combination of humor, adventure, and heart in a story about whether magic still exists in the world.
Yet, while magic is central to the story, it wasn’t an obvious first choice when Scanlon and his colleagues were developing the movie. “We thought, well, how do you bring someone back for a day? And we even talked for a while about maybe the brother character's a scientist and they build a machine that brings dad back. But we went to magic pretty quickly because it just seemed more romantic, more emotional.” Even then, though, it turned out that incorporating magic, and conceiving the movie as a fantasy film, presented its own set of problems. “We thought, if it's a classic fantasy and it's taking place hundreds of years ago, it kind of kills the very personal modern story of these brothers wanting to meet their father. So, then we thought, well, what if it's a modern fantasy world? And that's really what led us to the setting for the film – and what led to the fun, too. Things like, okay, unicorns were once rare and now they’re everywhere and they're like rodents. It was just an opportunity to make a more humorous fantasy film, which we hadn't seen a lot of at that point.”
Regarding the overall structure of the film, and in particular how integral the ending felt to the whole, Scanlon explained that the writing process hadn’t exactly been conventional. “The ending is the one thing that never changed from the initial pitch,” he reveals. “We came up with the ending first and the whole story was just trying to earn it and figuring out ways to earn it. A lot of it was making sure we really understood what Ian wanted to get out of meeting his dad. For a while we were thinking, well, does dad have some information that they need, like the code to the safe in the basement? And so, weirdly, that was a problem for a while, until we just added the idea that Ian is a kid who lacks confidence and he wants to ask his dad how to be an adult, how to find confidence. That's a great parent-kid thing.”
“Also, in our early versions of the story, Ian was the one who was into magic and Barley wasn't,” he continues. “And it was hard to get behind Ian because he knew so much about a subject that the audience didn't know about. Once we switched it and made Barley the one into magic, suddenly it worked because Ian and the audience are learning together.”
Another Pixar film signature, as all aficionados know, is that not only are there a lot of great gags, but they’re always exceedingly well placed, and timed. They can be character-based and narratively germane, or they can be little throwaways in the background that are gone almost before you notice them. Figuring out where to dial up the humor, where to dial it down, and arbitrating just how much funny is the right amount can be a tricky business – especially in a film like Onward, where the lead character is a somewhat melancholy soul.
In describing his approach to the film’s humor, Scanlon said that, like many aspects of filmmaking, it was an iterative process. “One of the really fun things about doing an original film,” he explains, “is you get to figure out the tone. And you don't always know the tone right away. You find it as you go. And it's so fun to have story artists working on a scene and they pitch a gag and you think, yeah, I guess this could be the tone of this movie. And then some stuff will go too far and you'll think, well, that doesn't really fit… and the movie starts to find its voice.”
“I love having ridiculous moments mixed in there, which can help to take the edge off,” he adds. “The whole legs thing is my favorite example. This is their father who passed away, it's very sad, but he's this ridiculous, awkward pair of legs, which takes a bit of the preciousness out of the situation. I love that someone will crack a joke, or some odd thing will happen, or some indignity will take place. It just feels very human. It's a laugh at a funeral. I love that mix in this movie.”
Needless to say, having a character that’s just a pair of legs for much of the film presented its own special narrative challenges. “You want him to feel like he's there and emoting, but he just has legs,” Scanlon shares. “In some ways, you have to kind of treat him like you would a dog character in an animated film. You have to give him moments, but you don't want to stop the movie for him to do something. The father knows it's gone wrong, but he also knows his boys are there and that they're together and that they love each other. And that's really his character, he's just glad to get what he can get.”
Turning from narrative and tonal concerns to the visual side of things, Scanlon was quick to emphasize how fortunate he was to work with cinematographer Sharon Calahan. Legendary for her dedication and exacting approach, Calahan served as director of photography on such Pixar landmarks as A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, and Ratatouille. While Scanlon jokes that, in working with Calahan, his job was just to get out of the way, it’s clear from his telling that the look of Onward, with its distinctive mix of the familiar and the fantastic, was very much a collaboration.
“She and I probably both have more naturalistic tastes,” Scanlon notes, “but I felt like I wanted this movie to have a bit more theatrical lighting, since it is a fantasy movie, and I wanted some bright color in there. And so that was a fun journey for both of us because we hadn't really done much of that before. She tried new things and did a lot of experiments – she's just such a phenomenal talent. We also wanted to make sure we always had some modern quality to the movie. We found that if the boys were just out in the woods, it kind of looked like any fantasy movie and you sort of lost the promise of the premise. So, we would always make sure that we had some element of modern life in the shots or vice versa. That was really important as far as the overall look of the film.”
The final look of the film was also determined by a change in direction regarding the dramatis personae. “For a while, we had humans in the world, like most fantasy stories do,” Scanlon recalls. “But then it felt like the humans were something apart from the other creatures, and we didn’t want that separateness. So, we said, okay, no humans. Elves are the closest thing we have. Also, because I wanted to have characters that the animators would enjoy animating, we started off really cartoony, but that didn't really work with the modern fantasy world. We had to back it up a little bit and found the sweet spot where it was still broad, fun, animate-able characters that weren't photorealistic, but it wasn't so exaggerated that we couldn't connect with what they are.”