If there is one aspect of filmmaking in which Pixar excels beyond the quality of animation, it's infusing their stories with a level of depth and emotion that moves even adults to tears (we're looking at you, 'Up' montage). 'Onward' is the latest film to follow in this time-honoured Pixar tradition of combining magical whimsy with a deeply honest story. In this case, the story in question revolves around two elf brothers, Ian and Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt respectively), who attempt to cast a spell that will bring back their late father for twenty-four hours so he can finally meet his sons. When Ian makes a mistake during the casting of the spell, however, they end up with just their father's legs to show for it, and so the two brothers must set off on a quest to bring the rest of their father back before he's lost to them forever. We had the chance to sit down with the director, Dan Scanlon, and producer, Kori Rae, of this animated adventure to talk about this charming tale of brotherhood and ask them about joining the Pixar canon and creating a fantasy world that, asides from the garbage unicorns, does not feel so dissimilar to our own.
The 'Onward' team are dedicated to adapting political discussions such as LGBTQ+ representation and toxic masculinity to the screen in a way that minimises preaching by simply representing these topics as natural aspects of our world. With regards to masculinity and the relationships between men, Scanlon drew inspiration from his own brother. "He's been really open and vulnerable [since the premiere]", says Scanlon. "I think that's one wonderful thing about the movie. It shows men - brothers - in a more vulnerable relationship where they're open to talking about their feelings...I think it's important that we're not always showing brothers punching each other and getting each other in headlocks, and that we show that you can have a conversation", he explains. Opening up a space to explore the reality of interpersonal relationships extended to their inclusion of Pixar's first openly LGBTQ+ character. The character, Officer Specter, makes a brief appearance, leading some fans to question whether this was sufficient representation, to which producer Kori Rae answers: "We really just wanted it to represent our world and have it reflect the diversity that we see in our world", she explains. "So it seemed more natural that it wasn't a huge point".
Indeed, one of the strokes of genius in 'Onward' is creating a fantasy world that, rather than resemble a high fantasy wonderland, is simply a more magical take on our own society. "We chose modern [fantasy] because the story is modern", says Rae. "So then we figured out how to juxtapose those two things and put fantasy in with the modern, with something that kind of looks like our world". Dan Scanlon was so charmed by this modern fantasy fusion created for 'Onward' that he signed up to make more content set in that world and has written a graphic prequel novel alongside Mariko Tamaki which he believes offers a "richer look" at the world they created beyond Ian and Barley.
Pixar: Opening Up a Space for Discussions
For Dan Scanlon, 'Onward' is a deeply personal story. Having lost his own father when he himself was just one year old, 'Onward' offered him an opportunity to tell a story about loss through the Disney tradition of films revolving around the loss of a parental figure. "My hope is that audiences see themselves and their own family experiences in the movie and feel that bond", says Scanlon. "Certainly there have been a lot of Pixar and Disney films over the years about parents lost and I think that's because it's a fear for a lot of us. Parents are a rock a lot of the time". In spite of this, Scanlon views animation as a way of opening up a space in which such a traumatic experience can be explored safely, particularly for children going through it at a young age: "I think it's an important topic to put out there for kids. It's an important topic for animation to discuss because it's a safe place in which kids can see themselves and see the experience".
'Onward' will hit UK cinemas on the 6th March.