‘Onward’: Pixar Finds Magic In A Tale Of Brotherly Love

Grab your Kleenex, with “Onward,” there won’t be a dry eye in the house. Disney and Pixar’s latest animated film is a creative way to tell a modern story from a fantasy aspect – plus it packs an emotional punch. The movie tugs at your heartstrings in a way that’s a bit different than Pixar films of the past. When two elf brothers, Ian and Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt respectively), set out on a magical quest, attempting to bring their father back from the dead for the day, some endearing moments arise, along with some fun magical antics. There’s humor, heart, and even trash unicorns for your enjoyment.

Ahead of the March 6 release in theaters, Chris Pratt (Barley Lightfoot), Tom Holland (Ian Lightfoot), Dan Scanlon (director), and Kori Rae (producer) convened in Los Angeles at SLS Hotel for the global press junket conference. Yahoo Entertainment senior correspondent Kevin Polowy moderated the special Valentine’s Day panel.

For director Dan Scanlon, “Onward” is a deeply personal story. Much like the characters in the movie, Scanlon lost his father at a young age. “My father passed away when I was about a year old, and my brother was three,” he shared with the room. “As you could imagine, we don’t remember him at all, but we always wondered who he was and how we were like him.” That became the foundation for the movie. It started from a question that anybody who has lost somebody has pondered. What if we could have just one day?

Scanlon began writing “Onward” about six years ago. He eventually re-teamed with producer Kori Rae, whom he worked with on 2013’s “Monsters University.” Together, they assembled on all-star cast that included not only the voices of Pratt and Holland, but also Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Laurel Lightfoot), Octavia Spencer (Manticore), Lena Waithe (Officer Spector), Ali Wong (Officer Gore), Tracey Ullman (Grecklin), and John Ratzenberger (Construction Worker Felix).

“What we found is how invested everybody got in the film,” Rae said during the press conference. “I think because it was based on this personal story that was pretty emotional, everybody was really into it, and into the role that they had.” Rae went on to praise Pratt and Holland, who were both sitting beside her and Scanlon on stage. “We are forever grateful for how much they invested themselves into the roles and how they really, really took the characters and elevated them and made them so much more complex and real.”

Disney/Pixar ‘Onward’

Disney/Pixar ‘Onward’

While discussing how they related to their animated elf counterparts, Holland pointed out how he and Pratt swapped their real-life sibling placement with their characters. Holland is the eldest in his family, while Pratt is the youngest. “Now I’m playing the younger brother, and he’s playing the older brother, so it was really nice for us to kind of make that switch,” Holland said. “Because Chris and I are obviously so close already before we even came onto this film, it was almost just like we were playing ourselves. But the similarities between Ian and myself, go back to more when I was sort of in my early teens – 12, 13. I was a little bit of an introvert, I was a very nervous kid, and I had a hard time in school. It wasn’t until I went on this adventure that was ‘Billy Elliot’ where I sort of came out of my shell, and I became more confident in myself, and I believed in myself. What drew me so much to this character is that we get to see that entire journey that I went on as a kid, in him, throughout this film.”   

After Pratt then lightened the mood in the room with some playful banter, he lauded Scanlon for his vision and a particular note he had given him about his character. “It was a note that Dan gave me that was actually against my own instinct… which was, Barley was never jealous of the fact that he didn’t have the magic gift. To me, I didn’t realize until seeing the movie, was something very similar to my own relationship with my brother, in which I was the Ian. I was the younger brother…That’s what makes this brotherhood and this relationship so special… It celebrates a love between two brothers and that brotherhood, and that oftentimes is not something you see in movies.”

While Scanlon and Rae are Pixar pros, “Onward” marks Holland’s and Pratt’s first venture into Pixar territory. “I think for every young actor, you set yourself goals, and I have mine that I’ve set out since I was a kid. They’re still the same today, and one of them was being in a Pixar movie,” Holland said. He was honored that they came to him to pitch him the role – it was a first for the young British actor. “We were welcomed into this wonderful [Pixar] family with such open arms, and it such was an amazing process.”

“Onward” is Pixar’s entry into the fantastical realm. It’s a modern story, which is personal, original, and creative. Scanlon and Rae could have tapped into the fantasy genre in a different way, but centering a story, based in suburbia, about two brothers bringing their father back to life, romanticizes the magical element in a way that is bound to enchant audiences all over the world.

Disney/Pixar ‘Onward’

Disney/Pixar ‘Onward’

Not only is there natural humor in the story, but as Scanlon pointed out, people can relate to the character of Ian in a lot of respects. “The world of this movie is people who have, out of just becoming kind of complacent and even fearful of taking risks, they’ve lost their potential. Ian is a kid who’s never lived up to his because he’s insecure and fearful. So, it’s always nice when the world and characters can kind of mirror. That, and we just wanted to show dirty unicorns,” Scanlon concluded, earning a laugh from the crowd.

Disney and Pixar’s “Onward” premieres in theaters on March 6, 2020.

Published on HollywoodFirstLookFeatures.com.