A zealous search for magic, a playful sibling relationship and an epic quest for adventure — these are the elements you have to look forward to in the brilliant masterpiece of a Pixar film “Onward.” In this suburban fantasy world, Ian and Barley Lightfoot, two teenage elf brothers voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, respectively, go on a journey to discover if there is any magic in the world that will help them spend one last day with their father. Although their father died when they were too young to recollect any memory of him, the brothers engage in a comical and spirited exploit to try to experience a bit of the childhood they unfortunately lost at a tender age.
Inspired by the real-life story of director Dan Scanlon, “Onward” is a heartwarming tale with a set of groundbreaking, diverse characters, including Lena Waithe as Officer Specter, a gay cyclops cop, Ali Wong as Gore, a faun cop, and Octavia Spencer as Corey, a manticore restaurant owner. “Onward” is supported by a strong foundation of characters, an exuberant cast, and bright, bold and vivacious images that satisfy our kaleidoscopic imagination three-fold, culminating in an innovative and artistic dreamscape.
The Emory Wheel discussed the film with “Onward” head of story Kelsey Mann on Feb. 25. The film is slated for release on March 6.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Angela Choksi, The Emory Wheel: How have your childhood experiences and upbringing molded your imagination?
Kelsey Mann: All of us are inspired by our own lives. One of my favorite rooms at Pixar is a story room where we share our deep personal feelings about growing up because it is a safe environment where we can talk about our encounters and about living life.
TEW: How did you harness your teenage memories to envision the storyline for “Onward?”
KM: The team and I had to reflect on how we were when we were 16, the feelings that we felt and what we were worried about. If there is any secret to Pixar, it’s tapping into the real-life experiences of the storytellers and putting the truths that are universal into the movie.
TEW: What is the one message you are hoping that audiences will take away from “Onward?”
KM: We wanted to make a super fun and entertaining film but we also wanted the audience to walk away with something emotional. That comes from [the story of] our director Dan never meeting his father. His dad passed away when he was only six months old and his brother was 3 years old, hence, neither of them has any memory of their father. Dan thought about how that experience shaped him and came to a realization about life that he thought would make a great movie.
TEW: What differentiates “Onward” from other Pixar films?
KM: The emotional ending of the movie will be a real surprise for the audience, but one that a lot of people can identify with and relate to, regardless of whether you have lost a parent or not. Ultimately, everyone has experienced loss in some sort of form.
TEW: Do you have an especially meaningful memory from the making of “Onward” that you will always cherish?
KM: The unique yet nostalgic thing about the story department is that the group of people you collect to storyboard a film is only together for one film and they will never work together in the same capacity ever again. While everyone moves onto different projects, that group will always remain the “Onward” story group. I really appreciate everyone that poured themselves into making this movie.
TEW: What role did the storyline play in inspiring the visual design of the characters?
KM: The job of the story department is to build a strong foundation for what needs to happen in the story and oftentimes we are the first ones to sketch the characters, but the art department ultimately designs the characters. They decide how the characters will look based on the requirements of the storyline.
TEW: What motivated the visualization of Barley and Ian’s characters? How did they evolve from their original envisionment?
KM: Barley needed to be messy, not polished, and he doesn’t care what people think. We told the art department what the character was like from the inside and they designed what it looks like on the outside but by looking inward of the character. For instance, during the first look at Ian, the character looked too elegant, like he had a cool-looking sloping nose and we needed him to be more awkward and more unsure of himself, and that’s when the idea of giving him a big giant nose came into play. He’s an awkward kid who’s trying to make his way and doesn’t quite fit in.
TEW: Is there any talk of a potential sequel or spin-off to “Onward?”
KM: Who knows where this story will go, but we are so excited for the film to come out on March 6. Working on the film since 2013 has certainly been a long journey for me and I’m excited for audiences to finally see what we have created.
TEW: How do you cope with the creative challenges of new projects?
KM: You take a little bit with you from each creative experience. Each movie presents new and different challenges than the previous one and it is always difficult no matter how much experience you have or how many movies you have worked on before. But that’s what makes it interesting.
TEW: How did your previous projects, including “Monsters University,” help you with your work on “Onward?”
KM: On “The Good Dinosaur,” Peter Sohn and I created a room called the fishbowl where all the artists could work together in a common workspace and then we tried it on “Onward,” and the team took to it even more than “The Good Dinosaur.”
TEW: What new Pixar projects are you looking forward to in the near future?
KM: There’s a lot of cool stuff that we are working on at Pixar. I’m super excited about director Pete Doctor’s, Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer, movie “Soul” coming out on June 19, 2020. We have a lot of projects in the works that are still under wraps, but there’s a really great future ahead for Pixar.
TEW: What should audiences expect to look forward to in “Onward?”
KM: I hope that the audience understands the emotion and heartbreak that went into creating this film and what we want to convey about familial support and the fragility of love, especially the tender relationship shared by siblings.
Pixar has persevered as a tenacious pioneer of revolutionary animated films, and “Onward” is no exception to that pattern. You will cry your heart out, laugh until you gag on your popcorn and experience heart-rending emotions that you might not have felt in a while during this film, but it will also be a touching and poignant reminder of the frailty of life and the importance of appreciating everything and everyone around you every moment of every day. This spring break, allow yourself to be whisked away to a whimsical and abstract world, where the farcical and ludicrous antics of two elves will win you over and force you to believe that there is still a bit of magic left in this world.