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Pixar has created some pretty amazing worlds over the years. We've seen societies made up entirely of living toys and a world that looks just like our own, except that the dominant life form is automobiles. It's been pretty damn impressive just how detailed and alive these worlds feel, it's why the end up working as well as they do, and now Pixar is on the verge of bringing us an entirely new world with Onward.
Pixar is calling Onward a "suburban fantasy" film. It's a place where magic, elves, and manticores exist, but it's also a world where they go to high school, drive vans, and go to Chuck E. Cheese-like themed restaurants. It's a weird mix of the world we know and the fantasy stories we love, but the world itself came about simply as a delivery method for the story director Dan Scanlon wanted to tell.
With Pixar, it always comes back to the story, and as the Onward director explained during a press conference at an Early Media Day at Pixar Animation Studios last year in which I was in attendance, this remarkable world came about because it was the one that needed to exist for Scanlan's story to work. Scanlan, who lost his own father when he was an infant, wanted to tell a story about boys trying to bring their father back, and for that to happen, it needed to be a world where magic existed, and the rest flowed from there. According to the director...
That’s where the idea of magic came from. We thought, well, we need to make a movie where that could be possible. And then the idea was, I don’t want to make a period piece in a fantasy world, I wouldn’t feel as close to that and then thought ‘well, why can’t it be modern and be a fantasy magical place?’ And that led to the humor of ‘well, that would be ridiculous and we could do all these gags.’ And then lastly they kind of came together when we realized well, Ian is this character who is not living up to his full potential out of fear and comfort, not wanting to explore and take risks and the world was kind of mirroring that too. Like, oh if this was a world that maybe got a little too comfortable. It’s never to say that this is a movie about science or technology being bad, it’s really about baby with the bathwater, they’ve lost a little bit of their specialness in taking the easy route. ’
For Onward to work, it needed to be in a place where magic existed, but where it was also unreliable, in order for the film's central conflict to make sense, that meant moving the story forward in time to an era where the characters had largely forgotten about magic. As Onward will explain in the film, while magic works, in this world, it was simply more complicated than technology, and so it was supplanted as the main way people got things done over time. Dan Scanlon admits that he was far from an expert on the topic of fantasy worlds, there was a group of passionate Pixar employees in charge of helping to create those elements, but the sword and sorcery-adjacent movie worked for telling the story he wanted to tell.
It will certainly be interesting to see how the audience reacts to the world of Onward, from what I've seen of the film, it feels like the sort of place we could potentially return to in the future. Perhaps if Onward is a hit, it could become a franchise all its own.