Pixar’s ‘Onward’ Seeks To Find Magic In A Mythical World Not Unlike Our Own

4 mins read

Emeryville-based Pixar won yet another Academy Award (that’s sixteen total) for best Animated Feature Film for their latest Toy Story franchise installment. They are now turning their attention to original story ideas including the 2020 releases of Onward (March 6) and Soul (June 19). Onward is projected to earn $45 million on opening weekend in the box office.

To help promote the movie’s release, Pixar invited The E’ville Eye among other news outlets to its campus for a sneak preview and a quick chat with Pixar vet and Director Dan Scanlon.

The film’s team also includes producer Kori Rae — who worked with Scanlon on the widely successful Monsters University — and scriptwriters Jason Headley and Keith Bunin. The film features voice actors Chris Pratt, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Ali Wong, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mel Rodriguez and Lena Waithe.

Onward is the story of two teenage brothers on a quest into the great unknown. The movie opens with a tale: “Long ago, the world was full of wonder, and magic helped those in need.” But all too quickly is that changed for the inhabitants living in tomorrow’s world.

Tools of convenience and ease have transformed the landscape and magic becomes so yesterday. The film’s characters have lost sight of their pasts, and as a consequence, have forgotten an integral part of their identities and culture. “In our movie, the metaphor of magic is potential,” Scanlon told The E’ville Eye News. “It’s what that world has lost.”

We meet The Lightfoots, your quintessential suburban elf family living in a cozy town called New Mushroomton. Their neighborhood is dotted with mushroom-topped cottages equipped with satellite dishes and patrolled by unicorns that scavenge their garbage bins like raccoons. A bridge near the town shows toll booths operated by trolls working for “Under Bridge Transportation Authority.” One scene pans across the town showing a water tower reminiscent of Emeryville’s landmark on Stanford Avenue and Beaudry Street.


Gawky and unsure of himself, 15-and-a-half year old Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) just wants to be half as cool and confident as his late father, Wilden. Ian flounders his way through school, and just can’t quite work up the courage to invite the cool kids to his 16th birthday party.

It certainly wasn’t going to happen after his raucous older brother Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Pratt) arrives to pick Ian up in a pegasus-adorned purple van he has dotingly named “Guinevere” (somewhat controversially, a local artist has filed suit against the company claiming they were inspired by her real life unicorn-adorned purple van).

Pixar created a real-life version of the van “Guinevere” to help promote the film.

Single mom Laurel Lightfoot (voiced by Louis-Dreyfus) is an empowered smoothie-drinking health fanatic who seems to have the family’s best interests at heart. When the brothers arrive home, Laurel surprises Ian with a birthday gift his father had saved for him to open when both were of age.

The gift turns out to be a wizard staff (though Laurel insists her husband was just an accountant). Barley once again makes a fiasco of things after interrupting Ian in the middle of a spell to conjure their father. The spell works, except not in the intended way – only the bottom half of their father materializes.



The two brothers then set out to bring the rest of their father back. The twist is that they only have one day before the spell wears off and their father is gone for good. “It’s a quest movie; emotionally, it’s about family and it’s about the people around you,” said Scanlon. “I hope that people see themselves in the film and in the relationships, even if you don’t have a brother or a sister. Family can mean a lot of things.”

The quest inevitably brings challenges to the brothers. Ian and Barley were raised in a modern society (think: mer-dragon glued to a smartphone while kicking back in a kiddy pool and sipping on a tropical drink). They adventure off without the help of their smartphones (even using…gasp…a physical map).

To question their notions and seek answers beyond the screens of their devices serves as a reminder to not just look up, but also look beyond. “It’s about not letting ease and comfort and the simplicity of life that sometimes technology can bring keep you from challenging yourself, from taking risks and most importantly, from bringing out your potential,” said Scanlon.

“I was married at Trader Vic’s in 2005,” said Scanlon. “My wife and I can visit the place we were married whenever we want. It’s the most magical thing in the world.”

Pixar director Dan Scanlon in front of a mural with the two protagonists, and half of their father, of his latest feature film, Onward, at the Pixar HQ in Emeryville (Photo by Sarah Belle Lin)

Essentially a coming-of-age story, Onward was inspired by Scanlon’s own childhood, chasing after memories of his father who had passed away before he was born. Only photos and audio tapes left behind gave Scanlon a glimpse into who his father was. After perusing through every audio tape in the house, he finally heard his father’s voice – but only two words were recorded: “hello” and “goodbye.”

Scanlon, who started his career at Pixar in 2001, said he always saw Emeryville as an essential part of Pixar and influential in driving his creativity. “I think just being in a very family-driven community helps when you make family films,” said Scanlon. The E’ville Eye News was especially ecstatic to hear that the gateway to the bay is more than just Scanlon’s workplace. “I was married at Trader Vic’s in 2005,” said Scanlon. “My wife and I can visit the place we were married whenever we want. It’s the most magical thing in the world.”

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Sarah Belle Lin

is an independent journalist and photographer based in the Bay Area. Sarah Belle aims to highlight diverse narratives and is excited to contribute a fresh perspective to The E'ville Eye.

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