Writer-Director Dan Scanlon’s personal inspiration for Onward kicked off development for what would become Pixar Animation Studios’ 22nd feature film.
“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 Dan Scanlon, who wrote the screenplay with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin . “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.
“That was the jumping-off point,” continues Scanlon. “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.”
Set in a suburban fantasy world, Onward introduces two teenage elf brothers who embark on an extraordinary quest to discover if there is still a little magic left out there.
Ian—a dogged list-maker—finds himself on his 16th birthday wanting more than ever to be better, bolder—more like his dad. So, when his mother presents the boys with a gift their late father left them—Ian sees an opportunity to finally do what he’s always dreamed of doing: get his father’s guidance. “Dad left a letter for both of them along with a mysterious spell, staff and a special gem that will give them one day with him,” says Scanlon. “When Dad got sick, he wanted to find a way he could see how his sons grew up.”
Scanlon says that magic is a big part of the story—but that there’s more to it than spells and spectacle. “Magic is a metaphor for their potential. In order to do magic, you have to take risks. You have to believe in yourself. You have to trust yourself. You have to listen. No matter what magic Ian does, he always has to be challenged in a way that allows him to grow.”
“It’s a modern suburban fantasy film—a new genre for Pixar,” laughs producer Kori Rae. Filmmakers populated their world with elves, sprites, satyrs, cyclops, centaurs, gnomes and trolls, among other creatures from mythology, folklore, fables and fantasy fiction. But the magic, it turns out, has been disappearing from the world for years—it’s nearly forgotten. “Only certain people could do it,” says Rae. “It was difficult, and you had to really practice. As technology was introduced, everyone found easier ways to do things. Magic is possible, it’s just that nobody really does it anymore.”
While the characters are born of fantasy—it was important to filmmakers that they all have human-like emotions and internal struggles—particularly the main characters. Elves offered human features and expressions—but the fact that elves’ appearances are otherwise quite fantastical helped set their visual contrast from humans.
Pixar Animation Studios has taken moviegoers under the sea, into space, back in time and into the toy box. But “Onward” marks the first time Pixar has explored a world that features all the conveniences of suburbia—but with vermin unicorns roaming the streets.
“In many ways, it’s a story about rebalancing,” says director Dan Scanlon. “Usually fantasy films take place long ago in a very noble time in a very beautiful land. There was something unique about seeing these characters in a world that’s familiar to us. It’s fun to imagine them riding skateboards, taking the bus, watching TV or playing video games. It’s something we haven’t seen before—it’s such a juxtaposition watching an elf have to take his kid to soccer practice.”
According to production designer Noah Klocek, filmmakers spent a lot of time defining what a modern fantasy setting might look like. “While it’s a fantasy movie, it’s not about being a fantasy movie,” he says. “It’s a story of these two brothers and the journey they go on,” he says. “Where we landed is that it’s the fantastic and the familiar—it’s the balance of those things.”