'Onward': Why Chris Pratt and Tom Holland Make Perfect Elf Brothers (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Image via Pixar
Chris Pratt and Tom Holland may be known for playing a swashbuckling space outlaw and a kid bitten by a radioactive spider, respectively, but their next project has the actors teaming up for something far more fantastical: In Pixar's Onward, Pratt and Holland voice a pair of teenage brothers who embark on a grand and noble quest. They just happen to also be elves. Oh, and they're blue.
Onward is set in a suburban fantasy world where the days of yore were filled with magic, but now elves and centaurs and cyclops and sprites co-exist in a modern world not so different from our own. (Pesky unicorns aside, that is.) On his 16th birthday, Ian Lightfoot (Holland) receives a wizard's staff from his late father, along with a spell to bring Dad back to life for one day. But when the incantation doesn't go as planned -- conjuring only as far as their dad's pants -- Ian and Barley (Pratt) have 24 hours to fix it before he's gone for good.
Pixar's latest hails from director Dan Scanlon, who mastered the modern world-building on his last film, Monsters University, but says the seed of truth that became Onward was very human. "I knew I wanted to do something personal, so I started working through things in my own life and asking questions," he said during a press day at Pixar Animation Studios.
"My dad passed away when I was a year old and my brother was three. So that was a biggie. That was a big question I had. I think a lot of times movies should start off as questions, and my question was, 'Who was he? And how am I like him?' That's where the idea came from. Then we thought, wouldn't it be amazing if you had one day with that person? What would you say?" Scanlon explained. "I like to believe that Pixar stories have endured the test of time because they're based on real questions that people are asking."
Following the Q&A, Scanlon and Onward producer Kori Rae sat down with ET to discuss creating magic and why Holland and Pratt make perfect elves.
ET: The kernel of the idea that became Onward is such an important part of your life. Had you been thinking about ways you could incorporate that into your art before? Or stories you could tell about that experience, before setting out on this journey?
Dan Scanlon: Weirdly, I hadn't. I always knew it was an important part of my life, but I'd never really thought of a way that it could be a story -- which seems strange now in hindsight. But no, it was really going through the process and sitting down with Kori and talking to other filmmakers about my life that led to finding this story. And I love that we are able to tell this story in such a big way. Because it is this little, weird, intimate story, and part of the fun is juxtaposing it with this very comic, very adventurous, very broad movie. I think -- I hope -- that it takes people by surprise.
I saw a sketch you drew in 2014 of two brothers and their half dad, but they were very normal-looking brothers. Human brothers.
Scanlon: Yeah. In the very early days, those were the things we knew we wanted and we were trying to figure out, "Well, how do you bring back half a dad?" They were just regular people and had figured out some contraption or something -- I can't remember -- and to be honest, it was just kind of boring. It didn't have the fun that this had. And then we thought, "We've got magic. We should use magic more." And the idea of a modern fantasy world with creatures instead of humans just lends itself to animation so much more. A lot of the fantasy stuff [we'd seen] was very realistic character design, so the idea of doing more cartoon-y, fun-to-animate fantasy creatures was something that seemed really fun.
Do you remember where the idea of having this dad character who's only his pants came from in the first place?
Scanlon: It's funny, we should really do some thinking, because I kind of can't. You know, there are so many different ideas that lead you to something. We knew we wanted this idea of Dad being created and grown, but at some point, the idea of just stopping at the pants came up. What I love about it is for all the years I've worked here, there is always some moment in a meeting where everyone laughs and goes, "Oh, we can't do that." And then somebody else goes, "We're doing it!" and we all get excited. This is very much that moment for us. Like, "What the hell?! It's going to be pants and walking around? That's so weird!"
Kori Rae: "Let's just do it."
Once you'd decided, "Let's do it," and had to go out and pitch it, was there anyone that was like, "No, this is crazy"?
Scanlon: No. [Laughs] There probably should have been.
Rae: Not that we heard. Even in the early days, I think it was just exciting. Nobody's seen it before. So if we can do that with one another here and say, "Oh my god, I've never seen that before!" then, yeah!
Scanlon: And I think the very reason why it's weird and uncomfortable is what makes it funny. You want to meet your father, you want this idyllic situation and you get the exact opposite of that. And family is awkward and has its moments, and so there's just something I delight in in the fact that it's weird.
Dan, we saw footage of you recording scratch vocals for Ian, so clearly you had an idea of who he was and what he sounded like. What was it about Tom that captured what you wanted in Ian? And what did he bring that you didn't know you'd wanted?
Scanlon: For one, he sounds 16 and I sound 43. [Laughs] He has this funny way of fumfering and being awkward and that was very Ian. We wanted the raw nerve of a 16-year-old and Tom can do that wonderfully. And on top of that, he's a great actor who is very sincere and emotional and there's a lot of that in the movie. You just kind of root for him. I think a big part of what he added was just a little more of that vulnerability that I don't think we had as much of in the early days.
I think in his Marvel work, Tom Holland has made people cry more than anyone else in that cinematic universe.
Rae: He's so good.
Do you remember the moment you landed on Chris Pratt? You see Barley now and you're like, "Yeah, that's obvious."
Scanlon: It seems so obvious, I know! It does. We looked at a lot of people, but Chris is so full of humor and energy. And Barley is wild and chaotic and charming and he gets away with it -- he gets away with being a little annoying because he's so funny, like you enjoy watching it.
Rae: And he's just got such heart. We wanted to make sure that even though Barley really bugs Ian and he doesn't want to be anything like his brother, we needed that heart in the character of Barley to come through so that you could see that they still had a bond. He's not just picking on him. That it was all well-intentioned and he's just doing things his way. And that heart that Chris has in his acting and as a human being, I think it just comes through and it was one of the big draws.
I'm sure Pratt is so excited to show this to his son.
Scanlon: He's very excited. He's been a real champion in the film from the beginning. He's been such a fan of the animation we've shown him and he's been really supportive of us. He's just a delightful guy.
Chris and Tom know each other and have worked together before -- which lends to that brotherly bond you hear in the movie -- but did they do any recording together? Or was it done separately?
Rae: We did! We were able to get them together one time. Their schedules are so insane, so getting them to record at all was a challenge. But yeah, we got them together once and it was a blast. We picked out certain scenes that we thought would really be elevated with the two of them together -- both comedic and emotional scenes -- and it was really, really fun. Chris really is big brother-ish to Tom, and it's really adorable to watch.
You've said the story took you a long time to crack, but how did you decide on Onward as a title? Was it always going to be called Onward?
Scanlon: It was a super hard movie to title. It's like Up. If you had to come up with another name for Up, it's a hard one, because it's such a unique movie. We were a little in that camp. Later in the movie, you hear Barley saying the word "onward," and it's a very Barley word because it's from the past. Some folks pointed it out to us as a potential title and we loved it because it was so positive and it feels like a journey. This is a coming-of-age movie, and it's also a movie about moving on from tragedy and tough stuff, so Onward felt perfect. It encompasses both the emotional part of it and just the big fun journey.