'Onward': How Pixar Created a Weird, Whimsical, Unicorn-Filled Suburban Fantasy World (Exclusive)

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In the 25 years Pixar has been making films, the studio given a glimpse into the everyday lives of toys and bugs, superheroes and automobiles and Michelin star rodents. Still, we've never seen something quite like Onward, a world that at first glance isn't so different from our own -- but with more wizards, mer people and dragons than we're accustomed to.

Onward's is a fantasy world in which magic once reigned, but has been made mostly irrelevant over the years. Now, in the suburbs of Mushroomton, two elf brothers will discover there's still a little magic left out there. On his 16th birthday, Ian (Tom Holland) is gifted a wizard's staff from his late father, along with a visitation spell to bring dad back for only 24 hours. When the spell misfires, Ian and his brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), must set out onward on an epic journey.

"It's like Up. If you had to come up with another name for Up, it's a hard one, because it's such a unique movie," director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) explained to ET of the title. "This is a coming-of-age movie, and it's also a movie about moving on from tragedy and tough stuff, so Onward felt perfect. It encompasses both the emotional part of it and just the big fun journey." During a press day at Pixar Animation Studios, ET sat down with Onward's creative team to discuss how the movie came to be.

A Grand and Noble Quest

Onward
Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios

The (literally) magical journey of "Onward" began from a very human place: Dan Scanlon's own father died when he was one year old, leaving the director wondering what he would do if they had one more day together.

Kelsey Mann, head of story: When you're trying to think of an idea, a lot of times, you look inward. "What do I want to put out in the world? What do I want to say?" Dan looked at himself like, "Well, what made me, me?" And he thought about growing up without a dad -- he never met his father -- and he was like, "I have no memories of him, and how did that shape me? What did that do to my life? How did that make me, me? And what are the things I've learned because of that?"

Dan Scanlon, director: I always knew it was an important part of my life, but I'd never really thought of a way that it could be a story -- which seems strange now in hindsight. But it was really going through the process of talking to other filmmakers about my life that led to finding this story.

Mann: He was coming up with multiple ideas at that time, and I remember talking to him about ideas of different films he was thinking about. I remember him pitching me a couple, and he pitched one similar to this. It's not exactly this but the heart of it is. And he was like, "Which one do you think I should do?" Like, "Obviously it's that one, man. That one's so heartfelt and it's so about you."

Noah Klocek, production designer: You would hear rumors of the movie Dan Scanlon was working on. It was, "A half-pants person is walking around..." and you're like, "I have no idea what's going on." And then he pitched the movie for the first time to the studio, and that personal story that he had and how heartfelt it was and that something so quirky has such a strong heart in it, I was like, "Wow!"

Madeline Sharafian, story lead: The core of it was there and had been there from the start. It always had Ian, Barley, and Dad. Or half Dad. That was always there. Those bones stayed.

Scanlon: Those were the things we knew we wanted and we were trying to figure out, "Well, how do you bring back half a dad?" They were just regular people and to be honest, it was just kind of boring. It didn't have the fun that this had. Then we thought, "We've got magic. We should use magic more." And I love that we are able to tell this story in such a big way. Because it is this little, weird, intimate story, and part of the fun is juxtaposing it with this very comic, very adventurous, very broad movie. I think -- I hope -- that it takes people by surprise.

Meet the Lightfoot Brothers

Onward
Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios

The heroes of this story are brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot, elf teenagers voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, respectively. The magic-loving, Quests of Yore-playing Barley is the true believer, while Ian reluctantly agrees to their own quest in hopes that he'll finally get to meet his late father.

Mann: Barley was always Barley, to a certain extent. He was always this big, loud, chaotic brother.

Scanlon: [Casting Chris] seems so obvious now! We looked at a lot of people, but Chris is so full of humor and energy. And Barley is wild and chaotic and charming and he gets away with it -- he gets away with being a little annoying because he's so funny, like you enjoy watching it.

Kori Rae, producer: And he's just got such heart. We wanted to make sure that even though Barley really bugs Ian and he doesn't want to be anything like his brother, we needed that heart in the character of Barley to come through so that you could see that they still had a bond. That it was all well-intentioned and he's just doing things his way. And that heart that Chris has in his acting and as a human being, it just comes through. We got them together once [to record] and it was a blast. Chris really is big brother-ish to Tom, and it's really adorable to watch.

Scanlon: [Tom] has this funny way of fumfering and being awkward and that was very Ian. We wanted the raw nerve of a 16-year-old and Tom can do that wonderfully. And on top of that, he's a great actor who is very sincere and emotional and there's a lot of that in the movie. You just kind of root for him.

Mann: We did many versions of Ian. Ian was really into magic in our very first beginnings of the story and Barley went along with it almost like he was his magic caddy or something, you know? Ian was the one who was really into it. [Halfway through], we were like, "Maybe Ian is the one who's not into magic and Barley is into magic."

Sharafian: It's what the audience is feeling too. We don't understand it either. When Barley is like, "We should do this spell," it's better to have a protagonist that is also like, "Wait, what are we talking about? What is this?"

Mann: You suddenly identified with him a lot more. In our initial versions, Ian wanted to meet Dad so he could get better at magic -- which felt a little less emotional -- so we flopped it. "What if Ian has to learn magic in order to meet Dad?"

Sharafian: Because the emphasis should always be on Dad, not the magic.

Meet the Lower Half of Their Dad

Onward
Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios

To his surprise, the spell Ian uses to bring back their dad actually works -- sort of. The magic sputters out halfway through the incantation, resurrecting Dad as only a sentient pair of pants... and perhaps the strangest character in Pixar history.

Scanlon: We knew we wanted this idea of Dad being created and grown, but at some point, the idea of just stopping at the pants came up. For all the years I've worked here, there is always some moment in a meeting where everyone laughs and goes, "Oh, we can't do that." And then somebody else goes, "We're doing it!" and we all get excited. This is very much that moment for us. Like, "What the hell?! It's going to be pants and walking around? That's so weird!"

Rae: "Let's just do it."

Klocek: We actually built physical representations of Dad and walked them around and shot video of it, and it wasn't until we actually built those physical things that everyone was like, "Oh yeah, this is going to work fine." But we didn't know how to do anything. There were simple questions about how would you even have this character walk around in the movie? I had to do an over-the-shoulder shot with Dad's pants. Like, how do you do that? And where are the eyes looking? Where's Ian looking at when he looks at Dad? It literally broke everything.

Sharafian: There were so many staging things that are tricky with the pants. Knowing where to have the characters look at Dad was really uncomfortable, you know?

Sharafian: It was funny, but sometimes it was ruining the emotional moments! We had to do a lot of workarounds, which is, I think, how we ended up with having some sort of pseudo-head situation. Now we can frame shots that have Ian and Barley and you can also see Dad.

Mann: The top half really helped, because you could address the head. You would look up at it. Or, we have a great, little emotional beat with the feet, so there is something nice about looking to Dad's feet that would make you feel something. But it is hard. Obviously the humor is easy to get across with a pair of pants. But the emotion? A little harder to get with a pair of pants.

Sequoia Blankenship, crowds supervisor: It was neat being in dailies and especially when we first see him, seeing how emotional that is. I was always shocked, like, "Whoa, that is so believable and tender."

Scanlon: I think the very reason why it's weird and uncomfortable is what makes it funny. You want to meet your father, you want this idyllic situation and you get the exact opposite of that. And family is awkward and has its moments, and so there's just something I delight in in the fact that it's weird.

A Magical, Fantastic, Totally Unremarkable World

Onward
Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios

Ian and Barley's odyssey takes them through a world both mythic and... well, not so different from our own. "Onward" exists in the Venn diagram where fantasy and reality collide, filled with ogre jocks and centaur police officers, karaoking goblins and garbage-eating unicorns.

Klocek: I'm a fantasy nerd from way back, but Dan was really adamant that this movie is accessible to everybody. We don't want to make a fantasy movie that's just for a couple of nerds who get it. We wanted to make it for everybody, so the trick was how to make fantasy authentic and believable and that you cared about the characters and cared about the world, but it was still over the top and really fun.

Scanlon: I know it's the obvious one, but I love the unicorns. I just think they perfectly set up this idea of not appreciating what you have around you. The joke of, they were so rare before and now they're basically rodents. They're everywhere. They're like squirrels, they're all over the place. There's just something about that that's always made me felt like it always summed up the movie perfectly.

Catherine Apple, editor: It is one of those moments that we ended up putting it other places in the movie, too. That to me was when everything hit and it was so funny. And I love unicorns, and I love seeing them dirty and eating and out of the trash and everything.

Blankenship: I'm such a sucker for the sprites. They're these little rogue, pirate-y bikers. It's so silly and fun. And just how just ornery they are. And even their motorcycle has been made fantasy, with the spikes and everything. It's ridiculous. I'm thinking, too, even some of the early shots of, like, the house. It's a big mushroom, but then you start seeing all the details of it, just all that sort of, like, whimsy. I'm a sucker for that stuff.

Allison Rutland, directing animator: There's a mushroom garage and a mushroom house and there are satellite dishes all over the mushroom houses. For me, my favorite character's maybe Colt, just because I think centaurs are funny and I've worked on serious centaurs and just to have, like, a funny centaur who drives a car is, I think, hilarious.

Rae: There's some stuff in act three that you'll see later that really does bring the whole thing together. The act three stuff is amazing, but you'll have to wait.


Onward arrives in theaters on March 6.

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