Feature Article

How Onward Tells Pixar's Most Personal Story Yet

Pixar’s Onward is in theaters on March 6.

When a new Pixar movie arrives in theaters, chances are you're going to see it expecting to be devastated. Whether it's the life-long journey of a group of toys in the Toy Story franchise, the decimation of Earth at the hands of humans in Wall-E, or an old man finding new life in Up, Pixar tends to find a way to entertain mass audiences with colorful and exciting adventures, while also addressing emotionally complex issues that many will face throughout their lifetime.

That's a trend that continues in the studio's newest release, Onward. The film stars Tom Holland and Chris Pratt as a pair of brothers on a magical quest through their fantasy-inspired world. In this particular corner of the Pixar universe, magic once existed but has been largely forgotten by most. Now, the world is populated by elves, minotaurs, unicorns, and a long list of other fantasy characters just trying to get by in a largely modern world. That's just the place-setting for the film, though. At its core, Onward is about life after losing a parent.

In the film, Holland's Ian--a teen elf--has no memories of his father, who died when he was a baby. Meanwhile, Pratt's character--Ian’s older brother Barley--has a few fond memories of his dad he hangs onto for dear life. Then, one day, they realize there's a magical way to bring him back for a 24-hour period. It's this possibility that drives their adventure, the opportunity to see their dad once more--or for Ian, for the first time.

It's a story that hits incredibly close to home for director Dan Scanlon, who admitted the tale is inspired by his own life. "Much like the characters in the movie, my father passed away when I was about a year old and my brother was three," he explained during a press conference for the film. "So as you can imagine, we don't remember him at all. But we always wondered who he was and how we were like him. And I think that question became the seed of Onward."

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Speaking briefly at a press screening of the movie, Scanlon revealed that he and his brother didn't even have memories of what their dad's voice sounded like. "We'd seen home movies but, for those of you my age, everything wasn't constantly videotaped back in those days. So what we had didn't have sound. So my brother and I didn't hear our father speak and didn't think we ever would."

That all changed when Scanlon's aunt and uncle sent them a cassette tape, recorded shortly before his parents were married in 1970. "For my brother and I, who were teenagers at the time, this was like magic. This was amazing for us," the director said.

On the tape, their dad only utters the words "hi" and "goodbye." However, as Scanlon noted, "It was a really wonderful thing for us." What's more, it sparked the idea that led to Onward. In the film, Ian and Barley also have a recording of their father’s voice. It’s one Ian has memorized to the point of being able to pretend he’s having a conversation with it. Going one step further, though, the brothers also accidentally conjure up their dad’s legs, which sets them on the adventure to figure out how to conjure the rest.

"We needed a way in which this father could come back to life, you know? That was really the reason behind the magic," Scanlon said during the press conference. "We could have done a version where--and even considered one where--the boys were scientists who build a machine that brought dad back. Magic just felt more romanticized."

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Ultimately, it's a very human story set against a fantastic backdrop. When you lose a parent, you'd do almost anything for one more day with them. For his part, Scanlon would want nothing more than "spending a day just talking and just walking around and also letting them know what a phenomenal job my mother did raising us and how she gave us everything we could have ever wanted."

While that's not a possibility, there is a bigger message the director hopes viewers take away from Onward, and it's told in the story between the two brothers. While they both long for their dad, ultimately they have each other and their mother.

"I think it's a film about support and the people that go above and beyond in our lives to help us become the people we are today," he said. "And so it's absolutely about walking out of that theater and thinking, 'Who are those people in my life?' And they don't necessarily have to be family members, a lot of times their friends or teachers. And I would go one step further: How can you be that for someone else?"

Onward hits theaters on March 6.

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chrishayner

Chris E. Hayner

Chris E. Hayner is a GameSpot Entertainment Editor and loves most movies, but especially Jaws and Paddington 2.

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