Pixar film Onward was six years in the making — but for director Dan Scanlon, it's been an entire lifetime.
Inspired by his own relationship to his older brother and their connection with their father, who died when Scanlon was only a year old, the animation studio's latest story is a heartfelt quest between two elven brothers desperate to reconnect with their late dad. When Scanlon was a teenager, he heard his father's voice for the first time through an old cassette tape; it was a simple recording of a man saying "hello" and "goodbye." But to the future animator and his brother, it was magic.
That feeling is what ultimately inspired the modern magical realism of Onward, where unicorns mine the city's dumpsters, manticores serve up pancakes, and pixies are earth-bound bikers with bad attitudes.
Scanlon's lanky, animated proxy is Ian (voiced by Tom Holland), a shy, awkward teen who's so afraid of everything that he can't see the wonders around him. But when a spell meant to bring back his dad for 24 hours goes awry, he's forced to tap into his inner magic to set things right. His gregarious older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), embraces the adventure into the unknown that unfolds. Together, they end up on a wild journey filled with dragons, gelatinous cubes, and self-discovery.
MTV News chatted with Scanlon about transposing his deeply personal story into a suburban fantasy and the catharsis that came with finally sharing it.
MTV News: This story is quite personal for you.
Dan Scanlon: Like the brothers in the movie, my brother and I lost our father when we were kids. I was a year, and he was 3 years old. We always wondered who he was and how we were like him. And that really was the question in the movie. And then that led to the idea of, well, if we could have one day with him, what would we want to say? What would we want to hear? That's why we set this story in a magical world, a world where you could spend a day with someone who was gone. And that was the beginning of the story.
MTV News: I was at D23 in 2017 when you first talked about the project, and you played a voice recording of your father's voice that you had discovered as a teenager. And in the film Ian listens to a voice recording from his father, and it's this heartbreaking moment. How did you decide to add that scene to the film?
Scanlon: The idea came up, like, "How do we show how much this kid wants to have a conversation with his dad?" And one of the other writers, Jason Headley, actually wrote the scene. I was really touched by it.
MTV News: When you're channeling something that's so personal to you, what is the experience of bringing it to life like? Animation is such a collaborative medium, so you're not only sharing these parts of yourself with audiences but also the people you work with every day.
Scanlon: Pixar is really encouraging when it comes to filmmakers being vulnerable and sharing something real and personal. So I felt really comfortable, actually. If anything, the hardest part is probably digging deeper, always looking for more, always searching a little more for your personal questions or fears. But I felt so supported by the other filmmakers and artists, and they would share their stories that were similar in tone about family and support. And it becomes this big therapy session, this big cry fest.
MTV News: That sounds cathartic.
Scanlon: These animated movie story rooms lead to fun and gags because as long as you're starting from a truthful, emotional place, that just naturally leads to the comedy. That's why sadness and comedy are so linked. But it was really a wonderful experience, watching this small story turn into a big story by the artists, and seeing how they set it in this fun, adventurous world was a real joy. I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about my relationships with my family, and I learned a lot about the other artists and their lives. And hopefully that then translates to audiences.
MTV News: I felt connected to it in a way that I didn't anticipate. I think a lot of it has to do with the resolution of the film and seeing that particular moment through Ian's eyes. The realization that his brother has always been there for him was more powerful.
Scanlon: This is a movie about support, and I hope audiences walk away saying, "Hey, was there someone in my life who went above and beyond to help me become the person I am today?" And that can be someone in your family, or it can be a friend or a teacher. There are so many people in our lives that put a little extra in. I hope people call and thank that person while they can.
MTV News: Is the relationship between Ian and Barley directly inspired by the relationship between you and your older brother?
Scanlon: It's very similar. I'm very much Ian in that I, especially at 16, was very shy and awkward and lacked confidence. My brother is weirdly nothing like Barley in the sense that he's not a wild, crazy, chaotic guy, but he's everything like Barley in his actions and in his support of his little brother. So, that's why it feels so much like us to me. And then our mom, much like Laurel, is so inspiring and encouraging and funny. I think all good parents know the differences between their kids and how to parent them a little differently. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Laurel really knows how to be tough with Barley and softer with Ian.
MTV News: Has your brother seen the film yet?
Scanlon: He just did two weeks ago. I didn't tell him anything really about the movie. He knew what was in the trailers, and he knew it was loosely based on our lives. And that's all he knew after six years of hearing about it. He saw it at the company wrap party a few weeks ago, and he loved it. I kind of knew he would because he's my brother and he's so supportive. But he gave me like the longest hug he's ever given me and said, "It's wonderful." And he's been texting me about it for the last two weeks. We were already very close, and now we're closer. I hope that kind of thing happens with other people who see the movie with a friend or family member.
MTV News: One thing that I really loved about the film is how you incorporated magic into a modern world. I needed more trash unicorns.
Scanlon: The reason I wanted to set it in a fantasy world was that it's animation, and I wanted to have fun with it. I thought it was interesting that this was a world where people had lost a little bit of their potential just because maybe they were taking it easy or they didn't want to do things the hard way. And that really mirrored Ian as a character. He's this 15 year old who is not really living up to his potential because he's scared and afraid to challenge himself. I liked that the world paralleled the characters and also it just led to so much comedy.
A lot of fantasy movies take place in times long ago and they're very, very serious. And so myself and the other artists just started laughing at the idea of, what if you took a little bit of the seriousness out of that and just let them be us and what humor would come from that?
MTV News: Have you ever played a game of Dungeons and Dragons in your life?
Scanlon: I have once or twice. I'll be honest, I was not a big fan of fantasy or role-playing and neither was Kori Rae, my filmmaking partner. We both didn't know the world. I never thought that I would make a fantasy movie, but that's what this naturally became. Luckily, we have, as you can imagine, so many artists at Pixar who are super into fantasy and super into role-playing games. We called them "The Fellowship" because they were really the people keeping us honest, making sure that we were making this truthful and that we were having fun with it and not making fun of it.
MTV News: It's a necessary balance. Because you and Kori could focus on the human story behind it.
Scanlon: I'd like to believe that because we don't know a lot about that world, we will hopefully avoid tropes or mix that type of story with something new. That said, because we're making a comedy, we did want to highlight certain tropes and then adjust them. But as far as storytelling, we don't fall back to good versus evil or that kind of thing. This is a very personal coming-of-age story set in a fantasy world.
MTV News: And the things the Ian and Barley are going through are very human. The revelation that their dad died of an illness is something that a lot of people can and will relate to.
Scanlon: We're certainly not the first Disney Pixar movie to have parent characters pass away. It's often the case. But this was a case where it's more of an illness, rather than a dramatic event. And yeah, a lot of kids have to go through that, and hopefully they'll see themselves and their situation in this.
MTV News: What is something that you've learned in your tenure at Pixar that you brought to this film? Or is there something you learned in the making of this film that you think made you a better storyteller?
Scanlon: One of the things I learned a lot being at Pixar is time and trust — taking the time that it takes to develop a film and trusting your fellow filmmakers, trusting your gut to take risks. That's why I feel comfortable trying new things there. I know I'll be supported if it doesn't work out, and I'll be supported if I need a little extra time to try something and then go a different way. Kori gave me so much space and so much support in order to try things, make mistakes. We really want the audience to get their money's worth. And so we want to try out every possible venue, every path, and every piece of entertainment we can. Creating these movies is like a quest. You try all the different paths and you have to take some risks.
MTV News: What's a risk that you took with this film that either turned into a mistake or really paid off?
Scanlon: Some of it is the risk of assuming that your small story is going to appeal to everyone. And there are little things like, we had other supporting characters in the movie for a while that I felt we needed. I spent a long time with these extra characters. And then over time decided, no, they don't need to be there. I'm going to try cutting them out. It's a lot of risking what you took out rather than what you put in, if that makes sense.
MTV News: Maybe also a risk to make the unicorns the dumpster dwellers.
Scanlon: That's true too! Exactly. Making the unicorns disgusting, dirty. It's certainly going against the grain on something.
MTV News: I'm glad that you took out some of the secondary characters because the scenes between Barley and Ian are really powerful.
Scanlon: And that's exactly why these other characters were just getting in the way, and we really needed to give all the conflict from them to the brothers. It's probably a thing that happens all the time with movies, but we never learn until too late.
MTV News: What's the key to a really successful pitch at Pixar?
Scanlon: When you get into a room to pitch a new idea, people accept it with kid gloves. The bar isn't that high yet. All they're looking for is something real — and that doesn't mean it has to be a personal story. It just needs to be something that you believe in. A question that is a legitimate question about life or a fear about life. Those are the things that lead to good drama. And a fun world. They're looking for the spark of characters that are unique and interesting. So in those early pitches, those are the elements we're really looking for. It doesn't have to be a fully flushed-out story yet. No one expects that. It starts so small, and that's really crucial with any art. You don't want to scare yourself.