Pixar has become world-famous for not just the visual quality of its computer-generated animated films but for the amount of heart in their stories, the emotionally charged themes that resonate with audiences everywhere. Onward continues that legacy. And for director/co-writer Dan Scanlon, this family-focused tale is but his latest exploration of a heart-breaking loss that has been a part of his own personal story for his entire life.
As he addressed the crowd in attendance at a recent D23, back when Onward was still an untitled Pixar film, Scanlon revealed his inspiration for it:
“When I was a year old, my father passed away. I don’t remember him and neither does my brother, who was 3 at the time … I have always wondered who my father was, and that question became the blueprint for this movie.”
In a more recent chat with Vanity Fair, Scanlon expanded on the conversation that led to that lightbulb moment:
“When I was trying to come up with an idea for a film, you look to the sad things, you look towards your fears, because that’s where drama comes from. You look for the fun, too. And I was talking to my mom on the phone and I said, ‘The truth is, I don’t know what to make a movie about, because nothing sad ever really happened to me.’ [She said,] ‘You lost your father,’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but that’s not sad, because I don’t remember him,’ And she said, ‘That’s why it’s sad.’”
Onward follows two elf brothers who have one last chance to reunite with their late father thanks to a powerful but short-lived magical spell. But that’s not where the comparisons stop. During D23, Scanlon also shared an audio recording of his late father–which only had the words “Hi” and “Bye”–an artifact of a man that he and his brother never had a chance to know:
“To us, it was magical. It was amazing to hear his voice.”
Once you’ve seen Onward, it becomes very clear just how important these aspects are to Scanlon and to the formation of the Pixar plot itself. But if you’ve been following Scanlon’s career for the past decade or so, it’s just as apparent that the absence of his father in his childhood and his life plays a huge role in shaping his narrative style and choice of stories to tell. In fact, if you’ve seen Scanlon’s 2009 indie effort / dark comedy / mockumentary Tracy, then the plot of Onward might feel a little more familiar to you.
Tracy follows ambitious filmmaker Dan Sullivan (Scanlon) and his attempts to solve the mysterious murder of children’s TV show host Tracy Knapp (Brian Fee) some thirty years earlier. Sullivan interviews Knapp’s former colleagues, friends, family members, and fans, all of whom have their own particularly quirky sensibilities (even if one of them is, inevitably, the murderer). You can watch all 14 parts of Tracy here, on Scanlon’s YouTube channel (while he leaves it up, anyway).
Tracy may not sound like a personal exploration of a man looking to reunite with a father he never knew, but peel back the surface story a bit and that’s exactly what you have. Scanlon set the indie story in his hometown of Clawson, Michigan, which doubles as his character Sullivan’s own hometown. The aspiring filmmaker (both Sullivan and Scanlon, by extension) wants to make his mark and put his town on the map by solving the murder mystery. But to do that, he’ll need to get to know a man he’s never met, a man who was a father figure to children across the country. Now, that man only lives on in the memory of those who knew him, those who watched his TV show, and the fuzzy, poor-quality VHS copies of the series itself.
While darkly comic (and absolutely hilarious, if I’m being honest, thanks in part to Scanlon’s writing and the comedic timing of both Scanlon and his co-stars), Tracy feels like the first honest exploration of his Quixotic quest to reconnect with his father. Sullivan is a stand-in for Scanlon himself, an aspiring filmmaker with a penchant for animation who steps outside of himself for a while in order to chase down a decades’ old mystery. In the process, he discovers truths about himself, about the man he and others held up as a mentor, and about those who say they knew the man best. It’s a fantastically put-together tale that also likely offered some catharsis to Scanlon along the way.
But the making of Tracy came with some other benefits. The 2009 production came in the midst of Scanlon’s career at Pixar, which itself grew from his earlier days at Disney. Tracy was also made with the help of Scanlon’s Pixar pals, notably the aforementioned Fee, Jeff Pidgeon, Bob Peterson, Scott Clark, Mark Andrews, Greg Dykstra, and, I believe, a brief appearance by Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur), though he’s uncredited. Tracy acted not only as a creative outlet for Scanlon’s angst but as an opportunity to put something together with his fellow creatives.
Back in 2013 ahead of the premiere of Monsters University, here’s what Scanlon had to say about making Tracy in a chat with Washington Post’s column Comic Riffs:
“Making ‘Tracy’ on my own may have made a difference — for me and them. It’s not the same as an animated story, but it is an attempt to tell a feature-length story with heart and humor.”
That indie, along with prior work writing and directing the Pixar video short Mater and the Ghostlight, ultimately led to Scanlon getting the go-ahead to write and direct Monsters University. And while that prequel series was more of a production by committee, it proved that Scanlon could field a full-scale feature. It all feels like a peek inside the mechanisms of Pixar itself, a production company that recruits and promotes talent from the inside and gives them a test run on some low-risk titles before offering a chance on the big stage. The step after that, should they be successful, is the rarer opportunity of delivering a deeply personal story with all the power and panache that Pixar can muster.
Onward may be Pixar’s most personal film yet. So while it succeeds perfectly well as a fun, family-friendly, fantasy-adventure flick, it carries so much more impact when you understand Scanlon’s personal touch.
One wonders if the making of Tracy helped him not only work through his own feelings but also refine his storytelling approach for a film that wouldn’t see the light of day for more than a decade. Now, with Onward, Scanlon has transcended the self-deprecating dark humor of Tracy to deliver a more earnest love letter of sorts to a father he never knew, but who has influenced his life nonetheless.