Pixar's new fantasy adventure 'Onward' based on director's personal loss of father figure

EMERYVILLE, Calif. (KGO) -- Pixar is on a roll. Fresh off of its Best Animated Feature Oscar for "Toy Story 4," the Emeryville-based studio is releasing "Onward." ABC-7 news anchor Kristen Sze recently interviewed the team behind "Onward," and learned the very personal story behind Pixar's first fantasy adventure.

Its central theme, based on a son's desire to know his father, mirrors the life of director Dan Scanlon.

"My father passed away when I was young. My brother and I don't remember him at all and we've always wondered who he was and how we were like him," Scanlon said.

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Scanlon and veteran Pixar producer Kori Rae realized these questions could form the basis for their next film. The two had previously done Monsters University together.

Rae says, "I think the whole experience of making this film started with a personal story and kind of ended with a universal story. And I'm just so proud of that."

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In "Onward," an awkward teenage elf Ian Lightfoot, played by Tom Holland discovers magic.

He uses it to bring back his deceased father so he could meet him for the first time. But when the magic falls short and conjures up only half of his dad, Ian and his older brother Barley, played by Chris Pratt, go on a quest to complete the spell and make their father whole.

Scanlon says, "We had to struggle with the choice of restoring him just up to his pants. I think it was more I guess like a metaphor, getting a little part of him."

The two brothers lugging around a half-built dad lends itself to comedy. But Scanlon is also trying to express the idea of having to piece together so many little parts, to put together a picture of dad.

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There is a touching scene in "Onward" in which Ian plays a cassette tape with his dad's voice on it and pretends he's having a conversation with him.

Scanlon tells ABC7 News, "When my brother and I were the age of Ian and Barley in the movie, my aunt and uncle who lived out of town found an old cassette tape. And I could tell by the way he said hi that he was a nervous kind of shy guy and then the way that he said bye that he was embarrassed that he had over-pronounced 'hi.' And I thought this is me. I'm like awkward and shy and uncomfortable."

Knowing their dad had similar traits helped the son grow in confidence, for the director and the hero, who went from not being able to invite anyone to his birthday party to walking across a magical trust bridge.

We asked Scanlon if taking on this project helped him get to know his father better in some ways?

"Yea, my mom very sweetly, inspired by the premise of the movie, went and asked some of my dad's old friends, one of his old army buddies to write my brother and I a note. And it was the greatest thing in the world."

"Onward" is a story of finding your family, your place in the world and your potential. If the movie conjures up conversations, that would be magical to the creative team.

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