Pixar is here to break your heart and build it back up again with their new animated adventure Onward. The original fantasy comes from Monsters University filmmaker Dan Scanlon, and it’s a deeply personal film for the writer/director, who was inspired by the loss of his own father to tell the story of two elf brothers (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) on an adventure to find the magic that will allow them to spend one day with their long-departed father.
Scanlon dropped in for a panel at CCXP in São Paulo, Brazil, where he offered some insight into the process of making a Pixar movie and how Onward‘s magical journey came together before debuting a trio of sneak peek scenes from the film.
So how does a Pixar movie get made? “The whole process starts off very very slow,” Scanlon said, originating with a “very small crew.” From there, the key crew starts breaking down the story. And again, it starts small. Scanlon showed an image from the story room with an almost entirely empty storyboard, populated by just one card. “A blank story room with one idea put up on a board, and you try out a few ideas,” he said. “Some work, some don’t and we eventually, we found our way towards the beginnings of what would eventually become Onward.”
Scanlon showed a new BTS image, and the storyboard is full; jam-packed with cards representing scenes, beats, and ideas for the film. “You start to build it up, take things down, talk about it,” he said. “Eventually we got the idea for Onward and assembled a team of story artists.”
“We draw storyboard sequences and then the team pitches those ideas to me,” he continued, noting that while it might look chaotic, “this process of collaboration works very well for us. The storyboard sequences are then edited together by our editorial department and we review them with our editor Catherine Apple.”
Once they’ve edited their storyboard sequences together, it’s time to review the film in its nascent form. “Then we watch it on the big screen, all together,” Scanlon said. “We invite all the people from the studio to watch it [with] fresh eyes.”
From there, it’s time for what Pixar calls the “Brain Trust,” a team made up of “creative leadership from the company as well as key leaders of the film.” The brain trust reviews the status of the movie, and after the meeting they offer notes. And then they repeat the process. “We do it over and over again,” Scanlon said, noting they ultimately watched about nine iterations of the film over the course of six years “to make sure it’s the best it can possibly be when it comes out.”
Ultimately, the art department came up with about 240 individual characters to represent 12 different fantasy species seen in the film (there are no human characters), including elves, dragons, sprites, cyclopses, manticores, centaurs, and unicorns — but these unicorns are a bit different. They’re kind of vermin. Scanlon explained, “There are unicorns everywhere, only now they’re like raccoons.”
For Scanlon, Onward is an intimately personal project, inspired by the loss of his own father when he was just a year old and his brother was only three. The filmmaker shared a touching story about the inspiration. “We had home movies but this was before home movies had audio so I had never heard my father’s voice. I had never heard him speak.”
That changed when a family member found an old cassette with his father’s voice on it. Scanlon, his brother, and their mom united to listen to the tape, but as it played, his father seemed to have always just left the room when it was time for him to talk…. until the very end. Scanlon played the audio for the crowd, and in the end, they heard only two brief words from their father — “Hii” and “Goodbye”.
“But to us that was magical,” Scanlon said. “It was amazing to hear his voice. All my life I’ve always wondered who my dad was and how much I was like him and that eventually became the idea for the movie.” And thus the story of two brothers hunting for the magic to meet their father for just one day was born.
Scanlon also offered a sneak peek at the film with some key scenes. The first scene was also shown at D23 and you can read Vinnie’s recap here, essentially finds Ian (Holland) and Barley (Pratt) discovering the spell that will let them reunite with their father, only to see it go wrong, leaving them with a half-dad — legs only, and a broken magical crystal that won’t let them finish the spell.
The boys reunite with their half-dad for the first time, through a series of toe-tapping communications that’s sure to get the eyes welling up. Barley (a huge enthusiast of magic, which has mostly disappeared from the land) decides they need to head to the manticore’s tavern, where they can find a new Phoenix Gem to finish the spell.
The next sequence was mercifully less emotional, a delightful action set-piece that sees Ian, Barley, and their disguised half-dad (costumed with a hoodie and goggles to help him look whole) squaring off against a gang of aggressive sprites at a gas station, where Ian accidentally shrinks his brother instead of growing a gas can.
“Sprites used to fly around spreading their wings. That’s a good thing,” Barley tells the sprite biker gang before accidentally insulting them and their ancestors by telling them. “Your wings don’t work because you’re not using them.” They take that as an insult that they’re lazy, and once their blindly stumbling father accidentally knocks over the sprites’ bikes, the chase is on.
The minuscule Harley can’t reach the pedals or the wheel, which leaves Ian (who just failed his driving test) in the driver’s seat for a sloppy chase through a crowded freeway with a gang of tiny but furious sprites hot on their heels, Barley talking his brother through the chase the whole wild ride.
The next scene once again sees Ian trying to use his magic. The traveling trio finds themselves at the “bottomless pit” a massive ravine with a bridge on the other side. But to get to it, Ian has to cast an invisible bridge spell and walk across. “You don’t know if the spell worked until you step on it,” Barley tells his little brother. “If you believe the bridge is there, it’s there.” Ian is naturally terrified, but Barley ties a rope around his waist and coaches him across — until the rope runs out and Ian crosses all on his own without realizing it. At the last step he turns around, shouting “Hey dad, this last step is for you!” When he see the rope is gone, he immediately plummets, catching himself on a rock at the last second.
“How long was the rope gone?” Ian asks. “Oh just like the second half of it,” Barley tells him.
“I needed that rope,” Ian replies angrily. “Oh, but did you?” Barley asks. That dynamic sums up the heart of the film, the brotherly bond between them and the way Barley is always there, coaching Ian through all his insecurities.
That touching bond (along with Disney’s classic dead parents business) promises to be yet another of Pixar’s signature tear-jerkers with a healing message. Look, full honesty, I teared up a not-insignificant amount during the panel alone. I’m a softie, but this one looks like it’s gonna be that classic happy-sad combo we know and love in Pixar’s greats.
Onward arrives in US theaters on March 6, 2020.