[Interview] Dan Scanlon, Kori Rae and Chris Pratt on the moving movie magic of ‘ONWARD’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Director Dan Scanlon’s ONWARD tells the tale of two brothers (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) on a quest to reunite with their long-deceased father. However, when the spell they cast fails to fully materialize dear ol’ dad, they’re forced to hit the road and work together in order to make their shared dream come true. It’s a moving story about loss, missing magical connections, and brotherhood.

The process of fleshing out the story began six years ago at Pixar as the filmmakers collected notes on the idea and their different drafts of the script. Scanlon, speaking at the film’s recent Los Angeles press conference, said,

“It’s a very personal story. Much like the characters in the movie, my father passed away when I was about a year old and my brother was three. We didn’t know him at all, but always wondered how we were like him. That question became the seed of ONWARD: “What if you could meet him? What if you could have one day? What would you ask?” And then we added elves and sprites to that very sad story.”

Producer Kori Rae, who reunites with the MONSTERS UNIVERSITY director, was surprisingly taken aback by the cast’s dedication to their roles.

“We were surprised how invested everybody got in the film. Because it was an original story everybody got emotional and into the role that they had. We are forever grateful for how much Tom and Chris invested themselves into their roles and how they took the characters and elevated them – made them so much more complex and real.”

Part of the process was getting feedback from its leads on their character’s compelling agencies. Scanlon elucidates,

“When we originally wrote Ian, he was a little more sarcastic. And Tom brought a sincerity to him. Chris was very protective over Barley, who is this goofball character. We wrote scenes that were like, “And then Barley’s pants fall down and he falls down the stairs.” Chris was all, “Well, he’s not an idiot. He’s a well-intentioned guy trying to help.” He was a protector of Barley.”

Chris Pratt was proud that the film is more reflective of a positive, healthy relationship than one typically seen in films dealing with that brotherly dynamic.

“There was a note that Dan gave me, which was against my own instinct, but I’m glad we went with what he wanted on this, which was Barley was never jealous of the fact that he never had the magic gift. There’s that moment when Barley realizes that Ian has the gift. He loves his brother so much that he’s just proud of him. It really made me appreciate my relationship with my brother. I think that’s very subtle and similar to my own relationship with my brother. I was the “Ian” and my brother was “Barley.” He wanted to be an actor and I became an actor. He’s only ever been super encouraging to me. It celebrates a love between two brothers. It’s something you really never see in movies. I really loved it.”

There was a previous iteration of this story that didn’t take place in a fantastical realm. Scanlon added,

“We considered [a version] where the boys were scientists who built a machine that brought dad back. Magic just felt more romanticized.”

They also took into consideration the time period. He continued,

“We didn’t want to set it in an old-timey world. It’s a very modern fantasy. If they were in robes, it would’ve been ridiculous.”

The choice to cut the boys’ dad off at the waist was thoughtfully planned out. Rae said,

“You’d be amazed sitting in the story room with a group of ten or twelve people, having a very serious conversation about that for days, weeks, months. We tried it all. We tried maybe just a pair of shoes once. There was one version of the story where it was shoes, and then they’d get something else, so he grew over the course of the movie. Way more disturbing. We like to do weird stuff at Pixar.”

Though there’s always some kind of meta element in Pixar films, that message wasn’t necessarily noticed by the filmmakers. In ONWARD, it seems to comment on the company’s 25th Anniversary – 25 years of trying to keep magic alive in a world that’s not conducive to it. Rae stated,

“Maybe it’s a happy accident. It was really about telling this personal story that we thought audiences could relate to. It is a new decade and we’re excited about what films are coming down the road.”

ONWARD opens on March 6.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.