Pixar's 'Onward' Helmer on Film's Unlikely Origins and Casting Chris Pratt and Tom Holland

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"I was shy and introverted and sat in my room all day drawing," says Dan Scanlon of his similarities to the teenage protagonist in 'Onward.' "I'm probably only slightly less uncomfortable being around groups of people now."

Dan Scanlon discusses the film’s personal story, why he had to assemble a "spell squad" and injuring himself in pursuit of animated excellence.

Whether it’s the talking toys of Toy Story, the rodent chef of Ratatouille or the anthropomorphized emotions in Inside Out, Pixar Animation Studios has introduced moviegoers to a host of fantasy worlds where seemingly anything is possible.

With the Feb. 21 Berlinale world premiere of Disney-Pixar’s 22nd feature, Onward, the studio introduces another fantasy in the form of New Mushroomton, a colorful suburban alternate reality filled with magic spells and populated by elves, gnomes and trolls.

The story — conceived and co-written by its director, Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), — follows Ian (Tom Holland), an introverted and awkward teen elf, who lost his father before he was born. His older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), is the opposite: wild and chaotic. On Ian’s 16th birthday, he learns that his father left the brothers 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 and shoes. They then have just 24 hours to figure out how to conjure the rest of their dad.

Scanlon, 43, talked to THR about the unlikely origins of this tall tale, landing his dream cast and the challenges of coaxing a great performance out of a disembodied pair of legs.

You came up with the story, which I know is very personal. Could you describe the genesis of the idea?

When I was a year old and my brother was 3, our father sadly passed away. So we grew up not knowing him at all, other than seeing photos of him and hearing stories from our mom. Naturally, we always wondered who he was and how we were like him. And I think that question of how we were like him was the question that became Onward — that journey to find out who you’re going to grow to be and how it relates to your family.

How did you come to cast Tom Holland and Chris Pratt?

In the case of Ian, we wanted someone who could be shy, who could be awkward in a fun way, but was also sensitive and sincere. He has this sincerity and drive that makes you root for him. But Tom is also really great at being awkward and goofing up his words and, charmingly, being uncomfortable. And then in the case of Chris, he is just this wild tornado of personality and energy. Chris is so funny and charming that he can also get away with doing things that the character might do that would be annoying, but in a really fun way.

There’s also a fantasy game element in the film. Can you explain that part?

In this world, they have role-playing games like they do in our world, only theirs are historically accurate. Part of the fun of the movie is when the boys get their hands on a real magic staff. Barley is suddenly the expert on how to do magic. His knowledge, which was kind of useless before and just for game-play, now, whether Ian likes it or not, [it makes Barley] the authority in this particular situation.

You put together a "spell squad" to come up with the names of the spells in the movie. How did that come about?

The other writers and I, to be honest, weren’t the biggest fantasy fans when we started. But we have a lot of real, authentic fantasy fans at Pixar. So those people who were on our story team got together and they created their own language. They came up with something that had a real logic to it. You can always tell what spell is going to happen based on the root word, having a connection to what is actually taking place, and yet it has its own specific fantasy flair. When Tom Holland was recording with Chris Pratt, he said to Chris, "I like doing the spells, they sound cool." I went back and told the story team, "Spider-Man thought your spells sounded cool."

When Ian and Barley start to bring their father back, the spell is interrupted and they are greeted by just a pair of pants and shoes. Can you describe the challenge of animating this character?

It was a big challenge for the animators to figure out how do you make a pair of legs emote. It’s awkward and weird and uncomfortable to look at, at times, but I think that’s part of the charm of it. The animators actually filmed themselves with greenscreen shirts and hoods on, and then just tried to act with their legs wearing these khaki pants and men’s shoes. It was the beginnings of figuring out how you can kind of get some emotion based on the way you tap [your foot] or the way you lean your weight to one side. In the end, I think they found that very small movements can communicate a lot.

Did you try it yourself?

I did. And I pulled a muscle. I was just achy and out of shape. So I feel for the dad character in this movie. We figured out a way to establish some foot tapping between the boys and dad so that they could communicate a little bit, but not much … because that’s really the drive of the movie — to be able to have these three talk to each other.

Interview edited for length and clarity. 

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 21 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.