Onward: Inside Pixar’s Take on High Fantasy

We go behind-the-scenes of Pixar Animation Studios to see the inspirations and world-building in their new movie, Onward.

Whether it be via toys, robots, cars, dinosaurs, fish, ghosts, superheroes, or candy-colored personifications of a young girl’s emotions, Pixar Animation Studios constantly finds ways to show us the world through new eyes. With Onward, the studio looks through the eyes of the strangest creatures they’ve put on the big screen yet: Geeks! To be more specific, two elves named Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), brothers living in a suburban fantasyland who also just so happen to be geeks.

Den of Geek was invited to Pixar’s campus in Emeryville, California where we got a sneak peek at the forthcoming feature. Alongside a gaggle of similarly wide-eyed journalists, I was shown around 40 minutes of footage, including the film’s first act and a scene from later in the movie involving the brothers attempting to use magic to cross a bottomless (literally) chasm. And, as you might’ve guessed, it is filled with a very familiar kind of Pixar magic.

The first act establishes quickly that Ian and Barley live in a world full of fantastical creatures and where magic exists but over time has fallen out of fashion in favor of the convenience of modern technology. “Magic is possible, it’s just that nobody really does it anymore,” says producer Kori Rae.

Ian is a self-conscious, awkward high-schooler who has trouble making friends; Barley, an older, confident lug who loves playing tabletop role playing games, is eager to help Ian overcome his inhibitions, although Ian isn’t so sure the boorish Barley is the role model he needs.

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The brothers live with their mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), but their dad died before Ian was born. On his 16th birthday, Ian’s mom gives him a gift his father left for him—a staff, a gem, and spell designed to bring dad back for a day! But the spell doesn’t go as planned, and they’re only able to conjure their father from the waist down. So the brothers and their dad’s living legs hop into Barley’s trusty van Guinevere and embark on an epic quest to bring their dad back in full.

“The story is inspired by my own relationship with my brother and our connection with our dad, who passed away when I was about a year old,” says director Dan Scanlon. “He’s always been a mystery to us. A family member sent us a tape recording of him saying just two words: ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ Two words. But to my brother and me—it was magic.”

One of the great appeals if the movie is the idea of a world where magic is real, yet so passé and taken for granted that only nerds like Barley study it. In this world, Quests of Yore, the D&D-adjacent game Barley is obsessed with, is actually historically accurate. This means that despite his penchant for bumbling Ian’s well thought out plans, Barley’s wealth of knowledge about magic, various creatures and monsters, and ancient landmarks makes him an invaluable travel partner.

The dynamic between the brothers is chaotic on the surface: Ian is a smart, organized intellectual who lists his goals and approaches every situation with caution; Barley throws caution to the wind, is a bit of a slob, and likes to play things fast and loose. His actions constantly disrupt Ian’s day-to-day life, though the brothers’ time together on their quest looks to prove that they actually balance each other out in a beautiful way.

Taking in the portions of the film that were shown, I was most impressed with how Pixar artists were able to balance the way their modern fantasyland is presented. The suburb where the brothers live and the nearby, industrialized city have countless little remnants of how the world once looked, before magic was overtaken by modernity. Some environments look unmistakably like a suburb or industrial city you’d see somewhere in middle America, but if you look closely, you can spot giant mushrooms, trolls, and spirally adornments peeking through the mundane, grey wash of power lines, street lights, and cracked asphalt.

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And as the brothers venture farther away from home, farther away from civilization, the environments begin to look more and more like traditional fantasy landscapes. The scene we were shown from later in the movie sees the brothers attempt to cast a “Trust Bridge” spell to get them across the aforementioned bottomless chasm. Without spoiling anything, the ensuing sequence is filled with terror and suspense, but it also acts as a pivotal moment for the brothers’ relationship.

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As far as casting goes, all of the actors feel just right for their respective roles. As proven with his turn as Peter Parker in the MCU films, Holland does teenage awkwardness very, very well. And Pratt’s brash, larger-than-life persona fits Barley like a glove. Even the brothers’ stepdad, an inconveniently large half horse, half man police officer, is voiced by the under-appreciated Mel Rodriguez, who’s played cops in movies for almost two decades now.

There is also Octavia Spencer as the Manticore, who the brothers meet on one of the first stops in their journey. She’s a legendary beast who’s part bat, part lion, and part scorpion, and who also happens to now be an exhausted, middle-aged restaurant manager whose glory days are far behind her. Despite her beastly appearance, the Manticore’s mid-life crisis feels utterly human and hilariously relatable, and layered themes like this are woven throughout the story. In typical Pixar fashion, the symbolism and metaphors running throughout the movie are cleverly devised and subtly poignant.

Part road movie, part Weekend at Bernie’s, part coming-of-age story, and part homage to classic fantasy games and novels from the ‘80s, Onward is one of Pixar’s weirdest projects to date, and that’s a great thing. In a time when we are perpetually distracted by devices that infiltrate virtually every aspect of our lives, this film aims to celebrate the magic of unplugged, quality time with family.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more behind-the-scenes details about Onward from our visit to Pixar before the movie’s March 6 release date.

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