Surrounded by Michigan paraphernalia in the Three Cats Cafe, Dan Scanlon looks comfortable and at home — because he is. As someone born and raised in Clawson, MI, it’s no wonder Scanlon is eager to talk about “Onward,” Scanlon’s highly anticipated film based on his own childhood, in his real-life hometown.
Scanlon has worked with Pixar for many years, taking part in many films such as “Cars,” “Brave” and “Monsters University.” “Onward,” however, is the first original Pixar film that he is directing, and what makes it even more special is that its storyline was derived from his own life. Scanlon, similar to the film’s protagonist Ian Lightfoot, voiced by Tom Holland (“Spider-Man: Homecoming”), lost his father at a young age and had to learn how to live his life without him.
When it came to making “Onward,” Scanlon said he set out to address the nagging questions you have to sit with in the face of loss. “What would you do if you could meet someone you lost? What would you say to them that you didn’t say before?”
At the same time, Scanlon added, “You don’t get that opportunity, sadly … ” What you do get, though, is the chance to call up the people “who did more than they had to to help you become the adult you are today… if they’re still around and thank them for what they did.”
Luckily for Scanlon, he had a supportive older brother, just like Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Chris Pratt, “Guardians of the Galaxy”), and a devoted mother, just like Laurel Lightfoot (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Veep”), that he could rely on. And, by calling on the experiences and memories that he had with those valuable people in his own life, he created a stunning, realistic and moving film meant for everyone, not just children.
The beauty of “Onward” lies in its two central characters, Ian and Barley. These two brothers are what Scanlon refers to as “a different type of brother and a different type of man.” They are shamelessly unafraid of being genuine and heartfelt towards one another, while still maintaining an easy, teasing banter. They disregard any and all expectations and stereotypes of toxic masculinity. Ian and Barley have a “sincere, sensitive relationship” and have no problem being “vulnerable” with each other, Scanlon said. Ian’s shy qualities are well-matched with his brother Barley’s wildness, and they have to work together to succeed in their quest to spend one final day with the father they barely remember. Barley’s endless support of Ian is based on the support Scanlon received, and continues to receive, from his own brother Bill, who “has been such a fan … and supporter of the movie,” since he first saw it at the Pixar wrap party.
While the whole film is full of love and sincerity, there is one part in particular that will be remembered as the most touching scene. In fact, when I asked Scanlon what he believes is the most iconic, “Where’s my supersuit?” scene of the film, he didn’t hesitate in answering “the end.” He purposely styled it so that the visual aspects would stand out “even if you have the sound down.” And he’s right. Every image, every motion in that climactic scene has you holding your breath, even with little to no sound being heard. That scene sums up the whole movie for me. It makes you hug your siblings a little tighter and look your parents in the eyes when you thank them for everything they’ve done. It’s a reminder of those you have with you and a tribute to those you no longer do.