Moving ‘Onward’: The Personal Story Behind The Upcoming Disney/Pixar Feature

“We’ve all lost someone, and if we could spend one more day with them,” Dan Scanlon, Writer/Director of Onward wonders aloud, “what an exciting opportunity that would be.” Disney and Pixar’s upcoming feature, Onward introduces two teenage elf brothers who embark on an extraordinary quest after receiving their late father’s letter along with a mysterious spell that will give them one day with him. The story is inspired by Writer/Director, Dan Scanlon’s relationship with his brother and their connection with their dad who passed away when he was about a year old.

“Only once is all we get. Grant me this rebirth. Till tomorrow’s sun is set — one day to walk the Earth.”

—Excerpt from an ancient magical spell.

Scanlon adds: “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.”

Visual development art by Kyle Macnaughton,. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Director, Dan Scanlon’s personal inspiration for Onward kicked off development for what would become Pixar Animation Studios’ 22nd feature film. Scanlon’s previous work for Pixar includes directing Monsters University with Producer, Kori Rae.

“We started with the characters first,” says Scanlon. “We wanted to tell the story of two brothers. We knew one would be shy and awkward, and we wanted to pair him with a brother with a completely opposite personality — someone who has every intention of teaching him about life — but maybe doesn’t really know a lot himself.”

Visual development art by Lou Hamou-Lhadj and Jennifer Chang. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

The story introduces Ian, an elf who lost his father before he was born. Uncertain and introverted, Ian longs to be confident and strong — and he’s sure if he’d grown up with his father, he would be both. “He’s a little shy and awkward,” says Scanlon. “And we paired him with a wild and chaotic big brother, Barley, who is constantly causing problems for Ian. Barley wants to teach his younger brother about life, but Ian isn’t exactly sure Barley knows what he’s talking about.”

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.”

Visual development art by Maria Yi. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Barley is immediately on board, as he’s long been a fan of the history of their world and the possibility of magic. But the spell doesn’t go as planned and the boys end up destroying the gem before the process is complete. “They end up only conjuring their dad’s legs, which are very much alive,” says Scanlon. “And they have 24 hours to find another gem and try to fully conjure their dad before he vanishes forever.”

The brothers summon Barley’s treasured van he calls Guinevere, and embark on a quest that promises to test their relationship. “Barley has spent his life studying how quests work, but Ian is the one capable of doing magic,” says Rae. “They realize that they need each other.”

Visual development art by Huy Nguyen. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

“It’s a modern suburban fantasy film — a new genre for Pixar,” laughs 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.”

Onward features the voices of Tom Holland as Ian, Chris Pratt as Barley, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Mom. Octavia Spencer lends her voice to the Manticore, a once-fierce warrior who has lost her fighting spirit, and Mel Rodriguez voices Officer Colt Bronco. Wilmer Valderrama voices an old friend of Dad who shares a story with Ian.

The all-new original film is directed by Scanlon and produced by Rae. Pete Docter is the executive producer. The score is composed by Mychael Danna, who won an Oscar® for his Life of Pi score, and Jeff Danna, who composed the score for The Good Dinosaur with Mychael.

Onward opens in U.S. theaters on March 6, 2020.

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