SPOILER WARNING: This article discusses major plot elements and the ending of “Onward”
There was a point during the making of “Onward” that Pixar director Dan Scanlon was afraid he was oversharing. Maybe he was putting too much of his own memories of growing up without his father into this story about two elven brothers in a magical world dealing with the same loss. But his colleagues at Pixar encouraged him to put more of himself into his work, and he credits that supportive environment at the hallowed animation studio for helping him create a movie that has already gotten him praise from audiences for its emotional resonance.
“I felt very comfortable talking about personal stuff and being vulnerable because that’s what the other artists here wanted to hear and got excited about,” Scanlon said. “My filmmaking partner Kori Rae and my co-writer Keith Bunin told me at one point, ‘You can keep telling us personal stuff. You are letting go too soon.'”
“Onward” was first introduced to the world at the 2017 D23 Expo before it even had a title. Scanlon, who rose through the ranks at Pixar and became director of “Monsters University” in 2013, talked about how the inspiration for his “suburban urban fantasy” came from memories of growing up with his older brother and mother after his father died when he was an infant. Childhood games of Dungeons & Dragons and a cassette tape of his father’s voice became the basis for a tale of two elven brothers, Ian and Barley, who go on a quest to find a gem for their father’s magic staff that they can use to bring him back for one day.
For anyone familiar with the Pixar canon, hearing such a premise would likely lead to preparation for a tear-jerking, cathartic ending between father and son. But from the beginning, Scanlon knew that he wanted the ending of his film to not be so “saccharine” as to give Ian that reunion with the father he never knew.
“I felt like having such a clean-cut ending would detach it from any human experience of loss, and that ultimately this film is not just about losing a father but also about Ian learning to appreciate the people in his life that filled the hole left behind by his father,” Scanlon said. “And in the end, he sacrifices for those people.”
In the process of building these themes of grief and brotherhood, many members of Scanlon’s team would talk about how the scenes of “Onward” evoked memories of loved ones that had passed on. He says it it led them to become “part therapist and part artist” around each other, helping to express their feelings about tough memories while thinking of ways to transform it into something that could be animated.
“You have to be careful to not get too excited and go, ‘Oooh, use that! That would be great!’ It’s still a human being!” he said. “But we all get really excited by these touchstones to human life and these personal, real stories.”
But there are also some hurdles that come with writing from one’s own past. When building the characterization for Ian, it took several attempts to get his personality to what is seen in the film. Ian’s shy demeanor and social awkwardness is something that Scanlon took from himself when he was 16; but in the initial draft, Ian was a selfish teen who detested others except for Barley, who he viewed with a condescending bemusement.
“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. “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.”
It took six years for “Onward” to go from pitch to screen, and already Scanlon is reaping the ultimate reward of that work in the reactions he has received from the film’s premiere and advance screenings.
“I’ve talked to so many people who have told me that this is their story or that watching the film reminded them of someone important in their life and they called that person,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a friend or a sibling, but either way they called and told them that they mattered and they loved them. And that was amazing to me, because along with reminding everyone of the importance of those kinds of people in all of our lives, the big message of this film is that you should tell them that now, because there is no guarantee that they will always be there to hear that.”