For Dan Scanlon, the story behind the new Pixar film is a deeply personal one.
Onward is the story of two elf brothers who lost their father at a young age. When they find his magical staff, they embark on a mission to see him — one last time.
Scanlon lost his own father when he was just 1 year old, and his brother, Bill, was 3. As director and co-writer, he uses the film to highlight the fact that even in grief, there is a little bit of comedy.
In Onward, Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Chris Pratt) and his brother, Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) are given the gift of their father’s magical staff, which comes with a note — a spell that allows him to visit them from the afterlife for one day. Only, the spell doesn’t fully work, and their dad returns only as a torso. The brothers embark on a funny, and sometimes scary, mission to bring him back the rest of the way.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as their devoted and protective mother, and Academy-Award winner Octavia Spencer plays a manticore who helps them along their journey. Onward also features Lena Waithe as a gay female police officer, Disney’s first LGBT character.
For Scanlon, the film — which takes place in a magical version of a modern-day suburb — featuring diverse characters was important to add to the realism of the fantastical tale. “We want the world to feel real, so we wanted to represent the diversity that’s in the real world,” Scanlon told The Guardian, “These worlds that you create live and die by how they touch reality.”
Dan Scanlon grew up in Clawson, where, by high school age, he was already competing in (and winning) local film competitions. He graduated from the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, and later joined Pixar.
In 2013, he directed his first film for the company, Monsters, Inc. — the now-classic film grossed over $700 million globally.
Onward is sure to be the next hit Pixar tearjerker. While the story is deeply-personal for Scanlon, the story of love and loss is one that can resonate with almost everyone.
Onward hits theaters on Friday, March 13.
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Biba Adams is a Detroit-based national freelance writer. Her work has been featured in Visit Detroit, Model D, VIBE, and more. She is currently working on her debut book, Scenes From a Renaissance: Detroit Hip-Hop 1996-2006.