Berlin: Dan Scanlon on the Personal Inspiration Behind 'Onward'

ONWARD - Still 1 - Berlin International Film Festival - H 2020
Courtesy of Disney / Pixar

The Pixar animated feature, starring Tom Holland and Chris Pratt as elf siblings on a magical quest, had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival.

At first glance, Onward, Disney-Pixar's animated fantasy film about two teenage elves (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) on a magic quest to bring back their dead father, doesn't look autobiographical.

But director Dan Scanlon says his inspiration for the film came directly from his own life. Like Holland's character Ian, Scanlon lost his father at an early age. And like the awkward teen elf, he always imagined what it would be like to speak to him again.

"I lost my dad when I was a year old, and my brother was only 3, so we didn't have any memories of him," Scanlon said at a press conference for Onward at the Berlin International Press Conference, where the film had its world premiere Friday. "I had so many questions about what my father was like and wanted to have a conversation with him. That was the seed of the idea for Onward."

Scanlon says one key scene in the film was taken directly from his life. In the movie, Ian, desperate to hear his dad's voice, plays an old cassette tape with a recording of a few snippets of conversation. In Scanlon's case, it was an audio tape recorded by his aunt.

"It was a recording of people basically talking about how dad wasn't in the room," he recalled, "so the tape was winding down, and we were thinking if we hear him at all. Finally my aunt stopped him and told him to say something. 'Hello' he said, in a really excitable way. My aunt told him to say something else. 'Goodbye' he said. 'Hello' and 'goodbye' was all we got. But to us it was magical. And it was also an inspiration for the film."

The story of Onward kicks off on Ian’s 16th birthday, when he learns that his father left him and his brother a spell that would give them a day with their dad. But when the spell is interrupted, Ian and Barley discover they only brought back half of their father — the lower half wearing a pair of pants, shoes and some bright purple socks. They have just 24 hours to find a magic gem and conjure the rest of their dad.

The film's world is a fantasy version of the real world. The boys live in a sprawling suburb that resembles those around Los Angeles, but populated by elves, gnomes and the occasional cop centaur. Other voice talent in Onward includes Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Octavia Spencer.

Onward rolls out internationally in early March. The U.S. bow is set for March 5.