By Zach Johnson
The Lightfoot brothers set off on an epic quest to discover lost magic in Onward, but they needn’t have looked any further than the film’s press conference in Beverly Hills. There, on Valentine’s Day, voice actors Chris Pratt (Barley) and Tom Holland (Ian) joined director and screenwriter Dan Scanlon and producer Kori Rae to take us behind the scenes of the new adventure from Disney and Pixar, arriving in theaters on March 6.
Onward tells the story of elf brothers who receive a gift from their late father, Wilden (voice of Kyle Bornheimer): a wizard’s staff, a gem stone, and a spell that will bring him back for 24 hours. New to magic, things inevitably go awry, and only the bottom half of their dad materializes. With the clock ticking, they set off on an unforgettable journey so Barley can spend one more day with his father—and Ian can meet him for the very first time.
Ironically, it’s nervous and timid Ian who can conjure magic, while his magic-obsessed big brother Barley can’t. Unfazed, Barley serves as his champion and guide along the way. “Magic is really a metaphor for potential in this movie,” Scanlon said. “The world in this movie shows people being complacent and fearful of taking risks. They’ve lost their potential, and Ian is a kid who’s never lived up to his because he’s insecure and fearful.”
Credit goes to Barley for helping Ian realize the world is—and always has been—at his fantastical fingertips. “Barley is never jealous of the fact that he didn’t have the magical gift. He loves his brother so much! He’s just so proud that he’s been given this gift,” Pratt said. “When I saw that in the movie and how it was expressed, it really made me appreciate how my own brother was with me, because my whole life and career, he’s only been super encouraging and positive about what I’ve been able to do as an actor.”
Much like Ian, Holland admitted he often felt unsure of himself as a teenager. “I was a little bit of an introvert,” he said. “I was a nervous kid, and I had a hard time at school.” It wasn’t until he began acting on London’s West End, he said, that he “came out of my shell and became more confident.” It’s because of those formative experiences, Scanlon said, that Holland “brought a sincerity and a vulnerability to Ian that is crucial.”
Onward is especially personal for Scanlon, who was about a year old when his own father passed away, leaving him and his older brother with no memories of him to cherish. “We always wondered who he was and how we were like him. I think those questions became the seed of Onward,” Scanlon said. “What if you could meet him? What if you could have one more day? What would you learn and what would you ask?”
Deciding exactly where to cut Wilden’s body in half for their journey was a surprisingly involved process. “You’d be amazed, sitting in a story room with a group of 10 or 12 people having a very serious conversation about that for days, weeks, months,” Rae said. “We tried it all. We thought, at first, ‘Maybe just a pair of shoes.’ Then there was a version where it began as shoes, and then they’d get something that would create a bit more, so he grew a little over the course of the film. We like to do weird stuff at Pixar; the weirder it is, we know that people within the studio and hopefully outside will love it.”
But, according to Scanlon, it’s also deeper than that. “When you’re someone who didn’t know someone, every little piece you get is special—every little piece of information, every little object they owned,” he explained. “So, the idea that the boys literally have a piece of their dad that is walking around felt funny, but it also lined up with that concept.”
Making Onward also inspired the cast and crew reflect on their own loved ones who have passed. Given the chance to bring back one person for 24 hours, Rae picked her grandfather. “Much like the film, I would just want to hang out with him and probably ask him a ton of questions,” the producer said. “My family wasn’t great about passing on family history, so there are a lot of blanks and a lot of areas that I don’t know about.”
Scanlon, of course, said he would bring back his father. “I’d maybe take him to see the movie, and then he’d say, ‘Eh…’” the director joked. In all seriousness, “I’d spend the day just talking, just walking around, and also letting him know what a phenomenal job my mother did raising us and how she gave us everything we could have ever wanted.”
As for Holland? “My granddad, Bob, never actually met his dad. His dad passed away when he was 18 months,” the actor explained. “I would bring back my great-grandfather so my granddad would have the opportunity to meet his dad.”
Finally, Pratt said, “I would probably bring back my dad, who passed away just before Guardians of the Galaxy came out. Then I would show him Guardians of the Galaxy… and if he didn’t like it, I’d bring back a known criminal and beat him up on Instagram Live and become popular. Because if my dad didn’t like Guardians, I’d be like, ‘All right, back to heaven!’”
Ultimately, Onward reminds fans that time is a gift. “This is a film about support and the people who go above and beyond to help us become the people we are today. It’s about walking out of that theater and thinking, ‘Who are those people in my life?’ They don’t necessarily have to be family members; a lot of times they’re friends or teachers,” Scanlon said. “And I’ll take it one step further: How can you be that for someone else?”