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Pixar movies take years to complete and in that time they can go through a lot of changes. Few films from the studio start out looking like the same film that ends up getting released. Pixar's Onward is no exception. The entire story is built upon an urban fantasy design, where a world of magic and magical creatures, exist in an otherwise modern setting. However, it turns out that the original concept for the story used science, rather than magic, as its driving mechanic, and the characters were all perfectly normal humans rather than elves.
Onward director Dan Scanlon has been very open about the fact that the basic story of Onward was inspired by his own life, as his own father passed away when he was a baby. And so, while the movie was always about two brothers trying to communicate with their dead father, the mechanics of how that worked changed quite a lot over time. Scanlon tells Comicbook.com that one early version of the story, they actually brought their father back a piece at a time over the course of the story. According to Scanlon...
Initially we thought, 'Well, we want to have a story about these two brothers who get an opportunity to bring their dad back to life.' And my early version of the story was in our world and they were humans and their father was a scientist who had invented a machine that could he hoped communicate with the dead in some way, but it didn't work. And so after the dad died, the boys were scientists too and they were trying to prove that their father's machine would work. And in doing so they inadvertently brought parts of him back. And we could have gone that way. It started to feel a little episodic because they were bringing back pieces of dad, like his feet first, then his legs, then his torso. And it also just felt a little cold and clinical. And then the idea of magic as a way to bring him back felt way more romanticized and just special.
The world of Onward is one where magic had once been everywhere, but over time it had been supplanted by technology. When Tom Holland's Ian tries to use magic to bring his father back to life, the spell doesn't work because the boy doesn't really understand how to use magic.
Magic is certainly more romantic than science, so it feels like Pixar made the right call in making the transition away from this early concept. The idea of bringing him back a piece at a time was also replaced with bringing back only his legs, and then spending the movie getting what was needed to bring back the rest of him.
It's always an interesting experiment to wonder about the Pixar movies that never were. There's an alternative universe version of Toy Story where Woody is an evil ventriloquist dummy. There's an entire alternate version of The Good Dinosaur that got scrapped and replaced. It's certainly fun to wonder what this other Onward could have been, even if the one we got was probably the better movie.
Following a brief theatrical run cut short by coronavirus, Onward was released to digital platforms. The movie will hit Disney+ on Friday.