“A lot of Pixar films are based on personal experiences,” says Onward director Dan Scanlon at Deadline’s Contenders Film awards-season event. “This might be more blatantly autobiographical in some ways.”
That’s not to say that Scanlon descended from elves. Rather, his movie follows two brothers – the younger Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) and older Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) — who’ve lost their father young in life. All they want is to spend another day with him, and that moment arrives.
Scanlon lost his dad at a very young age with his older brother becoming a big paternal figure in his life.
He did think of rooting the story in human characters, but “we needed a main way to bring the father back for a day. We thought about scientists or a magical science machine, but that felt kind of cold. The idea of magic felt like a more exciting story that led to, ‘Oh, well it could be a fantasy movie.’ ”
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The idea of a fantasy in a modern-world setting became a launchpad for comedy. One true-to-life moment in the film comes when Ian is listening to an audio cassette tape of his father’s voice; something that actually happened with Scanlon. His brother and him had never heard their father’s voice until they were given the tape. His father only said two words: “Hello and goodbye,” says Scanlon.
And like Barley in the movie, Scanlon’s older brother was a champion of his growing up, “putting up my drawings on his wall and showing my home movies to new friends he met.” Scanlon soon realized how much his brother was like a father.
“The movie is about appreciating what you have, over what you want,” says the filmmaker, “I hope that people take away: look around at what you have.”
Onward took six years to make start to finish, which is roughly the average turnaround time for a Pixar movie. It was the last big event film before the pandemic shut down movie theaters down; the film is currently available on Disney+.
Check back for the panel video.