‘Onward’ is a personal journey set in a fantasy world

A scene from Pixar Animation's "Onward."
“Onward” is a story of elf brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) and the quest they undertake.
(Disney / Pixar)

Trash-eating unicorns. A tavern run by a manticore. Half a dad (the lower half) on a road trip with his kids long after his death. And actual family-based pathos. Pixar Animation’s “Onward” is a personal journey set in a fantasy world.

Elf brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) undertake a magical quest that would allow them to spend a day with their long-dead father. Director and co-writer Dan Scanlon mined the real-life tragedy of losing his own father when he was too young to know the man; writing it out and bringing it to animated life helped him explore ideas that had been in his head for years, and in a public space.

“I mean, just to think about the questions I had about my dad, how I was like him. Thinking about my relationship with my brother and all the support my brother and mother gave me growing up. But to sit down and actually exorcise it, especially with [co-writers] Keith [Bunin] and Jason [Headley] and Kori [Rae], our producer ... and for the story team to be there to guide me through it and poke at things I hadn’t thought about, to push me to go further, to recognize gigantic blind spots,” said Scanlon, “that’s what’s so great at Pixar.


“It becomes the other writers’ and story artists’ and producers’ stories too, because they say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I have something like that in my family.’ And then it goes away from being my story, and it becomes this amalgam that becomes Ian and Barley’s story.”

Bunin says, “Dan is so generous in terms of making sure that he’s not making it just his story. There are times I felt like part of my job was to say, ‘Actually, no, you can make this yours. You can make this as strange and as singular as your story is.’”

“This ultimately was like a $100-million therapy session,” adds Headley.

That said, “Onward” definitely plays as a comedy with heart, rather than a deadly serious family drama. After all, as Bunin puts it, its world is both “mythic and mundane,” with its elfin leads driving around in a van that has seen better days. The ringtone on Mom’s mobile when her centaur boyfriend calls is the first notes of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It on.” (When this is mentioned, the three co-writers laugh uproariously: “Why does that song even exist in that world?”)

“Onward” owes much of its world-building to the beloved role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, with its rules governing monsters and weapons and adventures ... though Scanlon, Headley and Bunin confess to knowing little about it. Instead, they relied on the many at Pixar they call “experts” in D&D to guide them.

“We have so many people at Pixar who really know their stuff, and they kept us honest,” said Scanlon. “I was coming from a place of making fun of D&D, and that only lasts so long, and then it gets crappy and doesn’t feel real. The fun of it was having everyone at Pixar teach me what the joy of it is.


“Movies force you into ‘strange bedfellows’ situations. I never thought in ‘Monsters University,’ I’d make a sports movie. I hate sports, and then suddenly I’m making a sports movie! You learn to love it, and you find your own take on it.

“I’ve gotten pretty into fantasy, since.”

May I half this dance? Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt) and Ian (Tom Holland) dance with half of their dad in "Onward."

Relying on those who knew more about that world to bring it to life, they sent out companywide emails seeking advice and funny details to slip into the film.

“That’s how you end up with, ‘Now serving second breakfast,’” said Headley, referring to a restaurant sign catering to the eating habits of hobbits. But he credits Scanlon with one of his favorite bits: “At the very beginning, they show the beforetimes when [adventurers] go in, chase off the dragon and get this goblet. And then later at the pawn shop, that goblet’s on the counter, holding pens or something.”

Scanlon said, “I put one in there myself, and it was the most obscure one, and I haven’t told anybody, but nobody’s noticed it, so who cares .… At the end of the movie, when you go through the Manticore’s Tavern, you pass by a woman at a table, and it all looks like the old days again, and there is a little coffee cup next to her, and it’s the same coffee cup that the ‘Game of Thrones’ crew accidentally left. No one’s ever noticed it.”

Indeed, this comes as a surprise to his co-writers, who laugh loudly at the reveal.

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One thing that was no surprise to them was the film’s ending, and its touching revelation of the truth of Ian’s family, which had been there since the pitch.

Bunin said, “The things that changed the least in the movie were probably the first three minutes and the climax: The question of what a family is and what a brother is and what a parent is was always baked into the movie.”

No matter what turns it took, the road movie always knew its destination.

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