Explore the family connection that lets Pixar’s latest aim straight for the heart
Although the world of Onward may initially appear to belong to elves, pixies, dragons and other bigger than life fantasy creatures, the core audience for Pixar’s latest big screen adventure is a little more commonplace: Anyone who has or who has ever had a family. The reason the story’s emotional core emanates so powerfully this time around is owed to director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), whose personal history with his own late father guided Onward’s five-year journey to the screen.
“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,” Scanlon explains. “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.”
Onward begins with a very similar story. Tom Holland’s Ian Lightfoot is a young elf whose father passed away before they ever really got a chance to meet. He now lives with his brother, Barley (Chris Pratt) and his mother, Laurel (Julia-Louis Dreyfus), but feels an emptiness that he just can’t fill. That is, until he learns that his father left him a wizard’s staff along with a spell that can bring back the dead for just 24 hours.
“We started with the characters first,” explains Scanlon. We wanted to tell the story of two brothers. We knew one would be shy and awkward, and we wanted to pair him with a brother with a completely opposite personality—someone who has every intention of teaching him about life but maybe doesn’t really know a lot himself.”
“[Ian is] an awkward teenager who’s trying to find himself in this incredible world that Pixar so brilliantly created,” says the Spider-Man star. “I love the idea of creating new worlds with crazy characters who grow and change.”
“[He] is the everyman,” Scanlon continues. “He’s a little introverted like I am. He’s a logical kid, practical. He understands the world he lives in and just wants to fit into that world—especially at age 16. He doesn’t want to change the world. He’d rather go unnoticed.”
Chris Pratt’s Barley Lightfoot, meanwhile, is Ian’s older brother and, despite having the best of intentions, is often more than a tad overbearing.
“[Because Ian is] a little shy and awkward, we paired him with a wild and chaotic big brother, Barley, who is constantly causing problems for Ian,” says Scanlon. “Barley wants to teach his younger brother about life, but Ian isn’t exactly sure Barley knows what he’s talking about.”
“[H]e tries a little too hard,” Pratt admits. “He can be kind of a bumbling idiot, but he’s got a good heart.”
While Scanlon’s personal history served as the launching point for Onward, placing familial connections at the heart of the story meant building something to which just about anyone can relate.
“My sister really went above and beyond to support me and take care of me during a difficult time when I was in high school,” explains producer Kori Rae. “So I could relate to Ian and Barley’s relationship in that way. Really, we found that everyone had a personal connection to this story—some, like Dan, lost a parent when they were young. Others had special relationships with a mom or a sister. I think that really helped make this story special.”
“Dan, our director, really wanted me to focus on internalizing Barley’s story and making it as authentic as possible by grounding it in a sense of emotional reality,” says Pratt. “…I loved fantasy growing up. I had a book on dwarf culture—their weapons and their societies. There were beautiful illustrations, and I was all about just drawing as a kid, so I loved to copy the drawings. I always loved the look of fantasy characters—elves, dwarves, massive ogres and wizards.”
Originally, Scanlon had envisioned Onward as a story about two brothers who bring their father back with Frankenstein-eqsue science. Eventually, though, that story was moved to a contemporary fantasy world where magic was once everywhere.
“That was the jumping-off point,” says Scanlon. “We’ve all lost someone, and if we could spend one more day with them—what an exciting opportunity that would be. We knew that if we wanted to tell that story that we’d have to set the movie in a world where you could have that incredible opportunity.”
“It’s a modern suburban fantasy film—a new genre for Pixar,” laughs Rae. “Only certain people could do it. It was difficult, and you had to really practice. As technology was introduced, everyone found easier ways to do things. Magic is possible, it’s just that nobody really does it anymore.”
“The whole fantasy-magic part of the movie came out of that story need,” Scanlon continues. “The whole world is filled with creatures that used to be magical but have lost some of their potential… Magic is a metaphor for their potential. In order to do magic, you have to take risks. You have to believe in yourself. You have to trust yourself. You have to listen. No matter what magic spell Ian attempts, he always has to be challenged in a way that allows him to grow.”
On their journey, Ian and Barley will encounter all sorts of incredible creatures, including Octavia Spencer’s Manticore (a fantasy beast originally belonging to Persian mythology with the body of a lion and the tail of a scorpion), a police officer centaur (Mel Rodriguez), Pixie bikers and many more fantastical creatures.
“Usually fantasy films take place long ago in a very noble time in a very beautiful land,” says Scanlon. “There was something unique about seeing these characters in a world that’s familiar to us. It’s fun to imagine them riding skateboards, taking the bus, watching TV or playing video games. It’s something we haven’t seen before—it’s such a juxtaposition watching an elf have to take his kid to soccer practice.”
In 1974, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson redefined fantasy with a new kind of game called ‘Dungeons & Dragons’
Although Pixar’s Onward takes place in its own unique fantasy setting, the film is heavily inspired by the hugely popular roleplaying game, ‘Dungeons & Dragons’. Created in 1974 by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, ‘D&D’ offers an escape from the everyday reality of our world. However, in Onward’s version of the game, “Quests of Yore,” the gaming lore is instead historically accurate, recalling a time long ago when the world was filled with magic.
Oddly enough, historical accuracy was the starting point for Arneson and Gygax. In the 1960s, tabletop wargames had hit the height of their popularity, offering gamers the opportunity to plan detailed tactical maneuvers and wage imaginary military campaigns. There were quite a few variations of gameplay, but most wargames made use of maps, miniatures and detailed statistics to replicate warfare as accurately as possible. In 1966, the US Army even drafted rules for their own game, Tacspiel, which had been designed to analyze and counter guerrilla tactics.
Arenson was a college student in Minnesota when he traveled to Wisconsin for the second annual Gen Con (to this day, North America’s largest tabletop gaming convention), which is where he met Gygax for the first time. Eight years Arenson’s senior, Gygax also had, all his life, a prolific love of gaming, which led to the pair soon becoming fast friends. Gygax was, meanwhile, developing a medieval themed miniature game, “Chainmail,” with another friend, Jeff Perren.
“I started in fantasy, I suppose,” Gygax told Tom Snyder in a 1979 interview on the TV show ‘Tomorrow’ (via Playing at the World). “From stories my father told me when I was just a little boy. Magazines that were read to me as a child. Walt Disney movies have great fantasy, there. Grimm's fairy tales, all of those things. The progenitor of this game was a game called ‘Chainmail,’ which was a set of rules for medieval miniature figurines, small scale figures placed on tabletop and used to recreate medieval fantasy battles.”
Although “Chainmail” was originally designed to play in historical settings, Gygax had a deep love for the works of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard and simultaneously developed a fantasy themed subset for “Chainmail” as well.
As Gygax continued to develop games professionally, he and Arenson would get together to play something that they initially referred to as “the fantasy game”. Instead of controlling whole armies (as was the case in most wargames at the time), ‘the fantasy game’ allowed players to become individual characters. Game combat, meanwhile, developed from the rules of “Chainmail,” using dice rolls for combat sessions.
“The simplest way to explain how it works is this: It's making believe, as children play cops and robbers,” Gygax continued. “And sometimes the books tend to fool people into thinking, ‘Oh, well there's a lot here," but there isn't really very much to it at all to play the game. It's just a matter of sitting down and making believe. Suspending your disbelief and believing in developing a character in a make-believe world who's going to solve problems, which are rather adventurous. So, slaying dragons or going through a labyrinth, a maze, that nobody has found their way out of yet.”
As the game developed, five different kinds of polyhedral dice were created to represent various probabilities. When ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ first hit store shelves in January 1974, the set included five dice, the traditional six-sided die joined by four, eight, twelve and twenty sided versions. A few years later, ‘D&D’ would add a ten-sided die as well.
Sales were incredibly slow at first, taking almost a full year for Arenson and Gygax to sell 1,000 copies of their original ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ set. By 1975, however, that number had quadrupled with ‘D&D’ emerging as an increasingly popular game, especially among college students. Soon thereafter, D&D would become a household name to the point that now, nearly half a century later, there are an estimated 13.7 million players all over the world.
Unfortunately, Arenson and Gygax would end up having a complicated falling out over their individual contributions to ‘D&D’ and, sadly, both men passed away a little more than a decade ago. Their legacy, however, may very well live forever. Although Onward’s familial story was developed prior to the decision to set the narrative in a fantasy world, director Dan Scanlon soon found that there was no shortage when it came to ‘D&D’ fans working at Pixar.
“The first step in a lot of quests, we learned, is to go to some terrifying tavern outside of town to get a map or weapon or a critical piece of information from a shadowy figure,” he explains.
Love for ‘D&D’ extended even as far as the film’s cast with Tom Holland recently revealing to IGN that he and costar Chris Pratt have even discussed playing an epic ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ session with their Marvel Cinematic Universe costars!