This story about “Onward” first appeared in the Oscar Nominations Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine
Dan Scanlon now holds a rather strange place in movie history. His Pixar film, “Onward,” was the last film standing at No. 1 at the box office before movie theaters across the nation were forced to close by the pandemic. But even though his film was only in theaters for a couple of weeks, he was heartened by how families embraced “Onward” in quarantine.
“This movie is so much about trying to make the most of what you have when something is missing or there is someone you can’t be with, and I think that’s something a lot of people have been grappling with in lockdown,” Scanlon said. “People would send me pictures of their families turning their living rooms into a movie theater and kids making hand-drawn movie tickets, and I was so heartened that people were able to enjoy that experience.”
“Onward” is part of a proud Pixar tradition of animators putting a deeply personal part of themselves into their work. The fantasy film about Ian and Barley, a pair of teen elf brothers who go on a quest to bring their father back from the dead for one day was based on Scanlon’s own late father who passed when he was very young. Over the course of making “Onward,” Scanlon learned two important lessons from his Pixar peers: Don’t be afraid about oversharing, and don’t be so hard on yourself.
“When you’re writing a character based on yourself, the first few cracks at him are going to be pretty mean to that character and apologetic to everyone else,” Scanlon said about writing Ian, who learns to come to terms with the loss of his father as he becomes a powerful wizard. In the film, Ian is a very shy, socially-awkward teen, but in the first draft of the script, he was far more selfish and antisocial, something that he was encouraged to let go of in later drafts.
“If you’re even slightly self-aware, there’s a tendency as a writer to write a character based on you as a jerk because of guilt on how you behaved, and that’s step one to being honest with oneself.”
Scanlon is now passing those lessons on to the next wave of Pixar animators working on deeply personal films. Among them are Domee Shi, who won an Oscar with the animated short “Bao” and is now working on her feature debut “Turning Red” about a girl who turns into a panda when she gets too excited. There’s also “Luca,” a film heavily inspired by director Enrico Casarosa’s memories of growing up in Genoa.
“All of us directors talk to each other and I’ve told people, ‘There’s going to be a point where you’re worried that you’re sharing too much, but push that aside. If you’re oversharing, we’ll tell you, but don’t hold yourself back,'” he said. “We’re all here to make art, to learn about each other and connect, and that what makes me so excited when we start a new Pixar film because it means we’re going to learn more about Enrico’s life or Domee’s life. It’s going to have specificity to a person’s life.”
That also applies to “Soul,” which was developed at the same time as “Onward” and were both made through a tight partnership between Scanlon and “Soul” director Pete Docter. Both men were executive producers on each other’s films, and Scanlon has memories of many meetings where the conversation would start with Ian and Barley and end with Joe Gardner and 22.
“Really, the job of an executive producer is to be a pair of extra eyes and to ask questions about whatever is being worked on,” he said. “For Pete and I to both be helping each other…there’s a great mentor/mentee relationship going on. I’ve learned a lot from him and he’s said he’s learned a lot from me as well.”