Anyone who was in the massive convention hall during the 2017 D23 Expo still remembers it clear as day: back then Pixar was introducing a new project as Untitled Pixar Film That Takes You to a Suburban Fantasy World and its director, Monsters University’s Dan Scanlon, told an emotional story about his father’s death, and being too young to remember him. And then he played a snippet of audio he had uncovered; it was the only time he’d heard his father’s voice. You could hear the sniffles in the cavernous auditorium. And it was a few seconds of audio, loosely connected to something we still only knew as Untitled Pixar Film That Takes You to a Suburban Fantasy World.
Well, wait until you see the actual film, now known as Onward.
Scanlon was able to translate his personal story to a colorful, larger-than-life fantasy adventure, with a pair of mismatched elf brothers (voiced by Chris Pratt and Tom Holland) embarking on a dangerous quest for the chance to spend a few more minutes with their dearly departed dad. Pixar’s first original film since 2017, Onward is staggeringly beautiful and deeply moving, so it was obviously a thrill to get to go up to Pixar’s Emeryville campus and sit down with Scanlon and producer Kori Rae (who worked with Scanlon on Monsters University) and talk about where the film came from, why it had to be in widescreen, Jim Henson’s influence and what Onward moment they’d love to see in the Disney Parks.
DAN SCANLON: As has been mentioned, this is a personal story. And we wanted a way that, uh, these boys could meet their father, who had passed away. In order to tell the personal, emotional side of the story that had to somehow happen. So we thought, well, how is that even possible in any world? Is it some sort of machine that brings the dad back to life? Is there some other way to do it? And the idea of magic was the most poetic and beautiful way. That decision then just naturally led to, okay, this has to be a world with some sort of magic in it. And then we thought, well, fantasy worlds would have that. We didn’t want it to be a period piece though.
It felt like a lot of fantasy movies are period pieces. And that felt like it would get too far away from just the personal, everyday relationship of the boys and their dad that we wanted. So that led to what if this is a modern fantasy world, which made us laugh right away. Then there’d be this ridiculousness to it. And that’s literally the reason why it’s takes place in the fantasy world.
Initially it was more for storytelling reasons than anything else. And I think that over time though, the, a nice thing happened, which was just a lot of humor and entertainment that came from that, which is always great. But also when we started to realize this metaphor of magic as potential — that Ian is a 16 year-old kid who’s not really sure what he’s capable of. And that magic going away was really a bit about like comfort making people’s potential go away. They’re not challenging themselves. So that became the metaphor that worked really well to tell this story in this movie. But it was a roundabout way that it all happened.
Story supervisor Kelsey Mann showed everyone a photo today of the beginning of the movie, and it was the three of you in 2013 looking incredibly pleased to be having your photo taken. What were those early days like?
KORI RAE: The early days are just terrifying and slightly agonizing cause you’re just in a white room as you saw this with nothing in it. And it’s like, let’s come up with some ideas!
SCANLON: I had maybe one idea for something else that I think might’ve been pinned on the board behind me and even that was very loose. And you just start asking yourself questions about who you are and what’s important to you, what kind of questions you have in life that scare you, that you’re worried about. And you’re mixing that scary stuff and that personal, deep stuff with what makes me laugh? What’s funny? What kind of movie would I want to watch and make? And you’re going between the two of them in any given moment — deep emotional, searching stuff to just fun, entertaining humor.
The movie hadn’t been green lit yet, right? So what exploratory development got you to the point that it was a “go?”
RAE: Dan pitched a couple of ideas, and we pitched them early on, probably. We just a 25-, 30-minute pitch that had some kind of basic ideas there and everything. But I think this idea stood out because of the personal nature of it. We knew that we would really be able to tap into that and tell a story that was based on something that was truly emotional, that was true to Dan and his life. So we went in that direction and then, and then it’s just a matter of doing the treatment, then you do the full outline and then a table read and on and on.
SCANLON: But I think the story from the beginning, had the beginnings of an ending. Does that make sense?
RAE: It did.
SCANLON: It had a little bit more of a point than the other idea had. And I think that the brain trust folks [editor’s note: the small group of creative leaders who weigh in on each new Pixar project, the group currently includes folks like Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, and Domee Shi] felt like there’s a reason for this movie to exist.
RAE: There was, there was a hope for the ending that was there pretty early and that was the real anchor to the film.
Right, because if you had gone in and said, “it’s just some fantasy thing,” it probably wouldn’t have gotten the go-ahead.
SCANLON: It might have. To be honest, it might have gotten to another level just because, Oh my gosh, how fun would that be? Some ideas start from an external place and find their heart and go the other way around. But sometimes if you have something that just sounds fun, that might move forward, like, Well, what would you do in that world? You might not get the stamp right there of green lit.
Dan you were not the first director attached to Monsters University. Can you talk about the juxtaposition between coming into a project and developing one on your own from the ground up?
SCANLON: Yeah, I think that coming into something … And I was a part of it pretty early on in a different capacity … There’s a sense of, I care about this thing and it’s in trouble and I want to help it. And I have love for it and I feel like maybe I can help it. But also, with a sequel or a prequel, the nice things you have, hopefully, is the love of those characters from the world around you and a desire to see them again. And so that helps when you don’t have all the answers yet. There’s a general goodwill and a sense that, Well, I know people have liked these characters in the past. The harder part [of developing an original idea] is you don’t know any of that. You have no idea if people will like these characters and this world you’ve chosen. But the fun part about an original movie is the intensely personal side of it. The sense that you’re all getting to decide the tone of it and the style of it and it’s a very exciting and new feeling. But yeah, they sort of swap out. One has a positive that the other doesn’t have.
I love that you used these crazy anamorphic “lenses” with this movie, especially because I keep bugging Pete Docter to make a widescreen movie but he doesn’t think anamorphic is funny. What is your perspective on widescreen and why you went so bold?
SCALON: Well now I’m regretting that I did. Maybe that’s going to hurt it. No, it had to be widescreen. It’s a quest movie. It’s a huge adventure. And I think the humor of it being widescreen is that it’s this everyday world, right? The fact that you’re reminding the audience with these boring shots of being in a modern kitchen, that you are in this huge epic movie at all time. That’s what I love about it. It sort elevates this everyday thing, which in itself is kind of goofy and funny.
Take that Docter! The Docter is OUT!
SCANLON: We’ll see.
Monsters University is very Muppet-y and there was even a short film that Kelsey directed that played in front of Muppets Most Wanted. And Onward feels like an evolution of that, more of a Creature Shop movie. Can you talk about Jim Henson’s influence on you?
SCANLON: Growing up Jim Henson was probably the biggest creative influence on my life. I love the Muppets. The show was just coming out when I was very young and the movie came out again when I was young. I absolutely loved them. I drew them all the time, which is why I started drawing was just to draw the Muppets every day. I wanted to be either on the Muppets as a guest or be a Muppet, like a puppeteer. Those were my plans in life. Didn’t quite work out. What I loved about the Muppets is it was a children’s show, but it didn’t talk down to kids. I mean, the same is true with Sesame Street as well.
Jim and his team found that sweet spot between making great, legitimately funny entertainment that adults and children could both love. I was watching the original Muppet Movie recently and I thought, That’s a movie about a bunch of artists that want to like entertainers. No one would make that now cause that’s la selfish goal, you know what I mean? But the Muppets were always just entertainers who wanted to tell stories and they get around it by saying we want to make millions of people happy, which I think is a big part of art. But for a little kid who wanted to make movies and wanted to be an entertainer, they took the stigma off it and made it something that you could truly love. And when I watched those old movies now I just love that they’re these weird bohemian artists. I just can’t even think of anything like that now.
What’s your dream theme park experience based on Onward?
RAE: I almost said it but I can’t say it!
SCANLON: The Manticore’s Tavern would be great. I think that would be so fun and have so many fun in-jokes and they could Imagineer it to look perfect.
RAE: You could drink mead.
SCANLON: I think even early on when we were drawing the Manticore’s Tavern all the artists and story artists were like, “Oh this has to be in Disneyland someday.”
Onward opens in theaters on March 6th.