Onward and upward: how Pixar director drew on loss to conjure up heartfelt new tale

American director Dan Scanlon says new animation was inspired by his childhood - unicorns and all

FATHER & SON -- In Disney and Pixar’s “Onward,” 16-year-old Ian (voice of Tom Holland) yearns for the father he lost back before he was born. When a magical gift allows Ian and his brother Barley to conjure their dad—or half him, anyway—Ian’s dreams of getting the fatherly advice he’s always sought just might come true. Directed by Dan Scanlon and produced by Kori Rae, “Onward” opens in U.S. theaters on March 6, 2020. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

It's not unusual for filmmakers to take inspiration from their own childhoods for their work. Alfonso Cuaron had been seeking funding for his semi-autobiographical piece, Roma (2019), for a decade before Netflix finally stepped in, winning the streaming giant an Oscar as a reward. Gary Oldman drew heavily on his own childhood in East London for his directorial debut, Nil by Mouth (2007), which as well as being one of the bleakest couple of hours you'll spend in a cinema, also held the Guinness World Record for being the most profanity-­laden film in history when it was released.

When it was revealed that animation behemoth Pixar's latest, Onward, was to some degree an autobiographical look at co-writer / director Dan Scanlon's own childhood, nothing seemed too unusual. When we realised the film was about a pair of teenage elf brothers on a magical quest featuring unicorns, manticores and centaurs, we couldn't help but raise a quizzical eyebrow.

epa08241908 US Director Dan Scanlon attends the UK premiere of 'Onward' at Curzon Mayfair in London, Britain, 23 February 2020. The film will be release in British Cinemas on 06 March.  EPA/VICKIE FLORES

Of course, Scanlon didn't grow up on Middle-earth, but like the film's elfin protagonists, who try to use magic to bring their deceased father back for younger brother Ian's 16th birthday, he lost his father as a child, aged only 1, and channelled that experience into the film.

Despite the lack of mythical creatures in Scanlon's Michigan home town, the director says there's plenty of his own life in the events of Onward. "Like the boys, I lost my father really young and my brother and I don't remember him. We grew up wondering who he was and how we were like him, and trying to make that connection and looking for that sort of blueprint towards what kind of adult I should be," Scanlon says.

That naturally led to conversations about what he and his brother would do or say if they could meet their father, and ultimately how those conversations could be interpreted on screen, although Scanlon didn't hit upon the idea of his remarkably modern-day elves at the first attempt. "We thought, well, maybe there's, like, a machine. And they're scientists, brothers who make this," he says. "But it just felt kind of cold and not as romanticised as the idea of magic. So that led to a fantasy world, which then made us think, 'We don't want to set it years ago and have a bunch of guys in robes talking about their father.' That sort of forced the modern fantasy element in there. I think it became this nice, unique blend that led to humour for one, and made it turn into this kind of rich, unique movie for another."

The film is certainly unique. In a bizarre twist worthy of Grimms' Fairy Tales, the brothers' first attempt to bring their father back succeeds only in the return of his bottom half, forcing them to undertake their magical quest in the company of their father's disembodied legs, which certainly isn't something you see on screen every day.

Pixar, however, has always had an idiosyncratic approach to what are, on paper, children's films. Adult themes, surreal stories and black comedy are central to many of their productions – in 2009's Up, for example, an old widower turns his house into a makeshift airship in an attempt to visit his dead wife's dream holiday destination, while Soul, which will be released in the coming months, features the soul of a music teacher trying to return to Earth to play at a legendary jazz club, complete with a soundtrack from the decidedly un-child-friendly Nine Inch Nails.

CONJURING DAD – In Disney and Pixar’s “Onward,” mom Laurel Lightfoot (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents her sons Ian and Barley (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) with a special gift from their late father on Ian’s 16th birthday. But when an accompanying spell meant to magically conjure their dad for one day goes awry, they embark on a quest fraught with some of the most unexpected obstacles. Directed by Dan Scanlon and produced by Kori Rae, “Onward” opens in U.S. theaters on March 6, 2020.  © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

The production house sounds like it must be a dream workplace for a creative mind, and Scanlon doesn't disagree. "What I love about working at Pixar is that they have a lot of trust, and they give you time, and I think those are really important things for filmmakers to take risks," Scanlon says. "There's a lot of encouragement to do weird, crazy things like have half of dad's body. They get excited about the weirder things, and they generally seem to like to take the road less travelled and, if it goes wrong, they're there to pick you up and get you back on the road."

A few days before meeting up with Scanlon, Pixar took the road less travelled once again, by confirming that for the immediate future it had no sequels on its slate. In a cinematic landscape dominated by them, along with their siblings the reboot, the prequel and the origins story, the announcement was music to cinema lovers' ears, and particularly brave given that Pixar's Toy Story 4 picked up the Best Animated Film Oscar last month. Scanlon, too, seemed pleased with the news, although he isn't entirely without blame in the sequel game – the last film he directed was the prequel, Monsters University.

"I've worked on a lot of sequels in my career, and I really enjoy it," he says. "It's tough. You have to take these characters that people love and give them a new adventure and a new spin. It's really hard to do. But an original is an amazing experience because it's something totally different."

Simple economics dictates that sequels aren't going away anytime soon, but does Scanlon think his employer's stance could pressure competitors into seeking out more, much-needed, entirely original content? "I'm not worried about other studios thinking that; originality will pay off at this point. I can't imagine what we'd have to do to make that happen," he says, laughing.

"But I'm glad we're doing it, and I'm super-excited to see this unique new thing. I think sequels are still a part of Pixar and will be in the future when a good idea comes up. That's usually been the way we've done it – if something's got a spark. Something's got to get us excited about going back into that world again."

For now, though, we can look forward to a year full of new ideas from the animation giant, and Onward is a magical place to start.

Onward is in UAE cinemas from Thursday, March 6