Pixar’s new film tackles uncertainty and growth through a fantasy adventure

Arturo Hilario | El Observador
Ian (Tom Holland) in Pixar's "Onward" Photo Credit: Pixar Animation Studios/Disney

Onward, Pixar’s newest film has embarked the animation studio further than their other films have gone before.

We’ve gone into the human brain, seen the environments of prehistoric past, and vast space future. And to think, it started all with simply looking at the small-scale world of toys and their thoughts.

Now, as the title suggest, Pixar has gone onward, to a whole new world where high fantasy quests and modern beliefs merge.

Onward tells the tale of two teenage elf brothers, Ian and Barley, (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, respectively), who live in a suburban small town, both lost in their own lives. As the younger sibling, Ian is just trying to fit into his external environment: at school he doesn’t want to cause too much ruckus, away from school he is reminded of his late father, who he never got a chance to know. Barley on the other hand is much more vivacious and high-spirited.

Barley doesn’t mind being noticed, is an extremely loud and proud fan of the magical and fantastic that the world has seemed to grow beyond and is a very much an embarrassment to Ian because of these traits.

Director Dan Scanlon says, “[Ian’s] a little risk averse in life still, and he is an introverted guy and he’s not someone that wants everyone looking at him. And his brother [Barley] draws attention to him. He’s a character who was a hard to design because he’s a character who kind of wants to blend in”

These two live in a world that coexist between a magic filled past and their modern convenience present. This is a place where unicorns are seen more as pests that gallant winged beasts of lore.

At first glance, this world seems as close to our present with a magic twist: centaur policemen prefer the efficacy of driving their patrol cars rather than galloping on their four legs, an esteemed adventuress is relegated to working at an adventure-fantasy themed version of Chuck E’ Cheeses. There is little adventure in the world today, and little magic.

But, when Ian’s 16th birthday reveals a gift left from their father, a staff, a special gem and a letter to both sons. Scanlon says, “When Dad got sick, he wanted to find a way he could see how his sons grew up.”

As the brothers try to summon their father with the staff and the spell, only for 24 hours and only one time, they end up blundering the spell, leaving only the bottom half of their father. So essentially pants and shoes. Now the brothers must journey with their pair of dad legs to find another gem in order to get to fully experience time with their father before he vanishes forever.

Why Magic?

The ideas for “Onward” began as many Pixar projects do – as a blank page on a wall where the crew would pitch a few ideas that form the beginning of a years long journey to create what we see on screen.

The head of this round of ideas was Scanlon, who the genesis of the story for “Onward” began from his own childhood.

“I started from the personal story first. My father passed away when I was a year old my brother was only three. I always obviously wondered who he was and how I was like him. And really the idea of, ‘What if I got a chance to meet him and spend a day with him? What would my brother and I learn about ourselves and about him?’ And then the next question was, ‘well how could you meet someone for a day?’ And that’s what led to magic.”

Once the team at Pixar knew a basic framework of the story, it was time to place together just exactly how a made-up world of fantasy would work as a comedy with a serious punch of emotion (what Pixar is known for).

“I felt like this is such a personal story and if it’s taking place long ago and I’m not really going to connect with that and then thought, ‘well why does it have to be long ago could it be a magic piece now?’ And that’s what led to the idea of “well that’d be funny.” Then you’d have unicorns and all these things in a modern world,” says Scanlon.

The director’s initial idea for a fantasy world would be populated by his lesser versed knowledge of high fantasy, a world of funny situations, and spells which would make audiences laugh at its goofiness.

“I hadn’t seen a lot of fantasy movies that I personally liked because I think I was seeing a lot of the wrong stuff. I’ve since had the fans at Pixar point me in the right direction.”

Both he and Producer Kori Rae became much more fantasy fans as this project came together. It was because of the help of very knowledgeable fantasy fans that “Onward” morphed into what we get today.

“The cool thing was the fans here at Pixar said “No, don’t just poke fun make this a cool world – have fun with the world but honor what’s so cool about fantasy,” adds Scanlon.

Populating a world of warlocks, elves and European fantasy beings was no easy task, even with the help of the fantasy squad at Pixar. By taking references of existing fantasy stories, movies and games, (I’m assuming Dungeons and Dragons might have an Easter egg or two in there), the team of “Onward” was able to create upon those creatures and even make original spells and lore, while keeping true to the established ideas and themes of fantasy: adventure, growth, and very cool magic happenings.

“Onward” is interesting in that there isn’t a secret villain or a main villain, other than time itself. Scanlon says, “But they meet along the way characters who challenge them and threaten them. But more like a classic quest, it’s not one individual so much as environment and unique fun groups of troublesome characters along the way. It’s obstacles that get in their way.”

Voices of “Onward”

Pixar’s “Onward” has the voice talents of the aforementioned Tom Holland and Chris Pratt as Ian and Barley, as well as Julia Louis-Dreyfus as their Mom, Octavia Spencer as the Manticore, a once-fierce warrior who now works at that fantasy Chuck E’ Cheeses. Mel Rodriguez and Wilmer Valderrama lend their voices as Officer Colt Bronco and an old friend of Ian and Barley’s father.

The fact that Holland and Pratt are both Avengers isn’t lost on the crew of the movie. Scanlon says, “It certainly wasn’t an intentional thing. It wasn’t to bring those two together. it was a happy accident. But one thing that’s nice is they’re friends and they know each other, and I think that shows up in the movie. You know that they can kind of goof off with each other.”

The fact that they get along already seems to have influenced how good they act as brothers within the film.

“We found Chris because he’s just so fun and full of energy and so good at being kind of a lovable mess because Barley has to be this messy, chaotic character, and there’s this thing about Chris we just think well who wouldn’t want him to be your big brother.”

The main focus was always Ian, and after a lot of auditions the crew knew that Tom was the right person for this vulnerable character full of heart.

“I mean Tom the main character is Ian and so that’s where we focused all of our energy at the beginning. To find out who should play Ian. And then once we found Tom Holland and realized he was the perfect”

After all this the creators of “Onward” want nothing more than for audiences to escape into this adventure and hopefully leave finding a balance between adventure and the normalcy in their own modern lives.

“It’s not really to say that the modern world is bad, it’s just finding that balance the ease of modern convenience is maybe gone a little too far in the “Onward” world, but there’s great stuff that comes from modern convenience too and really the characters learned to find that balance,” says Scanlon.

“What I love about it is it is the movie it is maturing, it is growing up, it is moving past loss it is learning to deal with loss and so it has this funny kind of pretentious nature to it but it also is really moving and felt like what the movie is about.”

In the end, like Ian and Barley and their pursuit of their own destiny and moving past loss are themes that are made more fantastic with the magic of this new world made by Pixar with care.

“No matter how modern there’s magic everywhere. And you just have to remind yourselves to look for it,” adds Scanlon.

“Onward” is out March 6, 2020.