Pixar Animation Studios has banked a gazillion dollars from its fantastic franchises such as “Toy Story,” “Cars” and “Monsters, Inc.” But it is when Pixar goes completely, bonkers-level, original that audience members get a full picture of what Pixar is all about. Think about the emotional exploration of “Inside Out,” the galaxy-spanning love story of “WALL-E” and the filial folklore of “Coco.” It’s built into Pixar’s undeniable DNA: started by Lucasfilm, funded by Steve Jobs, bought in 2006 by Disney and shepherded by the likes of John Lasseter.
That is why Pixar dares to venture into new territory again with its new film, “Onward,” a remix of the classic magical fantasy quest with suburban reality. Comedy and family are thrown in for good measure. In “Onward,” we see a world where magical creatures such as elves and fairies live mundane lives to the point that magic is pretty much a myth. Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Spider-Man himself, Tom Holland) does not remember his father. But he finds out that his father left behind a spell that would allow him and his brother, the rocking Barley Lightfoot (Star-Lord himself, Chris Pratt) to be with their father for 24 hours. Of course, the spell is botched and the Lightfoot brothers have their father’s lower half as company as they go on a quest to somehow save the spell. Trouble looms ahead for the Lightfoot brothers, it seems, and perhaps only the team of their mother Laurel (“VEEP’s” Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and the legendary monster Manticore—now just known as the sassy Corey (Octavia Spencer). Surprises surely abound in this one, and the voice cast includes Ali Wong and Lena Whaite.
So how did this animated alchemy exactly come to be? Something amazing started with something missing in director-screenwriter Dan Scanlon’s life, something he’s carried his entire life. “It started from a very personal place,” Scanlon told Super over the phone. “My brother and I both lost my dad when we were very young and we don’t remember him at all.” When Scanlon was a teenager he and his brother received a gift from a relative: a tape recording of his father saying two words, “hello” and “goodbye.” “We always wondered how we were like him and that led to the idea of what if we could spend one day with him,” Scanlon said.
That lifelong question led all the way to “Onward’s unique setting, according to Scanlon. “How could have this magical thing happen, how can a dead person be brought back to life? It also led to a lot of humor. How would a fantasy world be like if it were more like ours, where magic has been replaced by technology? How fun would it be see such creatures living everyday lives and not living up to their potential? That could only happen in a world with magic, and that’s where the suburban fantasy idea came from.”
That’s why “Onward’s” setting may just be a little bit familiar to you. It’s based pretty much on what Dan said is “Los Angeles, an everyday modern place people were familiar with from TV and movies but with a twist, just a little bit of magic characters into that.”
One of the truly magical elements of “Onward” is its incredible voice cast of Holland and Pratt who, incidentally, have never actually worked together as voice talents. Producer Kori Rae has been with Pixar since 2003 and said of her cast: “It was really great. We always think about the main characters and we wondered who Ian would be. Tom really pulled off that awkward type of character with a lot of sincerity and heart. We really wanted that for Ian as we wanted him to be likeable. Then Chris was the perfect person to cast for Barley, a character who is kind of rough around the edges and is overconfident whereas Ian isn’t. Chris has so much humor and it ended up being a perfect match.”
Scanlon and Rae had previously worked as director and producer, respectively, on another Pixar hit, “Monsters University.” Rae said Scanlon is an amazing storyteller “He’s also an incredible collaborator. It’s kind of a tough thing to do sometimes when you’re telling your own story but it makes every movie he works on all the better for it.” On his part, Scanlon said Rae is “always good at bringing together who will challenge each other but also support each other. One if the crucial things in making films with a group of artists is to have the time and support to make something grow into something wonderful.”
There is something inspiring to take to heart in the words of literal magical spell spoken by Ian: “Only once is all we get. Grant me this rebirth. ‘Til tomorrow’s sun is set, one day to walk the Earth.” Scanlon explained: “I think it’s a really important part of the movie. Part of this world is the idea that technology has replaced magic. You have to challenge yourself and learn about the magic inside of you.”
These are the ingredients in a potent magical movie spell, with “Onward,” Pixar’s 22nd feature film, the legendary hero’s journey utterly Pixarized, from characters to monsters, from curses to rewards. As Rae explained, this is an enchanted time for Pixar for well: “I think because of the personal nature of the film, I think audiences will really resonate with it as it’s also a very universal story. We worked hard to include all who worked on the film to make sure it had many layers can be related to by a lot of people. We really just wanted to tell good, fun, adventurous stories. That’s always been the goal of Pixar, and it’s a really exciting time because we have a lot of original content coming out.”
Pixar’s “Onward” opens in cinemas on March 4.