Dan Scanlon: The Marvel of Onward

April 3, 2020
The director of Disney Pixar’s latest opens up about the personal nature of his latest film, featuring the voices of two prominent actors in the MCU.

When Chris Pratt came to voice the rambunctious Barley and Tom Holland his brother Ian in Dan Scanlon’s highly personal Pixar feature Onward, it didn’t initially occur to the writer-director that the actors are both from Marvel superhero movies. (Of course, Pratt stars in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise and Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming, while they appear together as part of the superhero pack in the Avengers movies.)

“It was kind of a coincidence but after an hour we realised,” recalls Scanlon, 43, who had previously directed Monsters University and clearly leads a sheltered life, like most animators. “It worked in our favour that they knew each other and had a friendship from doing the movies. Chris is like a big brother to Tom and is really supportive of him. They had a great rapport.”

Tom Holland at the London premiere

Was it hard to settle Pratt down in front of a microphone? The effusive actor can be a little over the top, I suggest. “That’s what we love about him. He sort of is Barley. We were keen to let him improvise and go wild and then do scenes as written and he was open to that. He’s also capable of sensitive, emotional stuff which was crucial to the character.”

The film, set in a fantasy world where all sorts of fantastic creatures – unicorns, cyclops, a manticore – are part of daily life, follows two vastly different elven brothers, the rambunctious though fairly thick Barley and the timid and far smarter Ian who yearn to meet their deceased father. When they discover that he has left behind a spell that will bring him back, Ian tests the belief that with a wizard’s staff and a magic stone they will have him again for a day. Yet the spell only half works, meaning they only have their father from the waist down. When the stone is accidentally destroyed, they have to find the only other stone that exists, before they lose their father again.

Scanlon had lost his father when he was a year old. “My brother is a year older and we have no memories of our father, but we always wondered who he was and how we were like him. That led to this idea of, what if we were able to spend a day with him?”

Scanlon is unapologetic that the film is emotional.

“That’s life,” he says. “Part of the fun of why I go to the movies is I want to laugh a lot, I want to cry, I want to feel those emotions. It takes six years to make these movies and I wanted at least to make something that matters to us, that connects to other people. So, we usually try to find something that’s important to us in our lives – a question, a worry, a fear.”

Was it a risk to make such a personal story?

“Doing a personal story is always a risk,” Scanlon admits. “You put your life out there, you put the stories of your family out there and you don’t know if people will connect to it. That’s a risk and also having dad’s pants walking around for a whole movie is a risk, it’s a weird idea. But what I like at Pixar… when you pitch stuff like that, what if a house is connected to a bunch of balloons? What if rats cook? There’s always a sense of, ‘ok, let’s try it’. It will be memorable, it will be unique and I love that. The people we work with get excited by it being odd.”

He admits it was challenging to create a father character who only has legs and pants.

“The animators really had to get a lot of emotion out of those, and at first they were doing broad things almost like he was a clown. Then they realised nobody moves like that and it’s the subtleties that are important. Hopefully you want to know what he’s thinking. So, a small amount of action goes a long way.”

Dan Scanlon at the London premiere

The film is also an adventure ride as the brothers hit the road in Barley’s ‘80s van to try and track down the stone. Did his brother own a van like that?

“No, but he owned a big noisy 71 Chauvel, which he also built. I was a shy little kid who wanted to make claymation movies. I didn’t want to drive around in this big muscle car, which just attracts other jerks in muscle cars, who want to race. So, it was an interesting way for them to go on their quest.”

Has his family seen the film?

“Yes, my brother saw it at the wrap party and my mom saw it at the premiere. My brother doesn’t look like Barley, but he is Barley in the sense that he is a loving, supportive person and he was really blown away by it. The film really changed our relationship even more for the better and my mom was very proud and moved and it’s been really special. I hope that other people watch it with their family members. Even if you don’t have brothers, if you’ve got a sister, a loved one, a friend or a teacher – there are all these people in our lives who go above and beyond, like Barley did, to help you become who you are. At least call them and apologise and thank them for all they’ve done for you. If people do that – and some people have told us they’ve done that – that’s our biggest reward.”

Onward proves an attraction for game-playing geeks too. In the story, Barley is obsessed with a role-playing game called Quests of Yore and the game is now available.

“There’s also a Quest of Yore book that goes deeper into the characters and spells,” explains Onward’s producer Kori Rae. “We have a graphic novel coming out that’s a prequel to the story that takes place 800 years before the movie and is just the manticore’s adventures. We love this world and it’s been fun for us to geek out and go further into it.”

Onward is available for digital purchase from April 3, 2020 and will debut on Disney+ on April 24, 2020

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