Clawson native Dan Scanlon directed and wrote the screenplay for “Onward,” Pixar Animation Studios’ 22nd feature film, which is loosely based on his own life experiences.

Clawson native Dan Scanlon directed and wrote the screenplay for “Onward,” Pixar Animation Studios’ 22nd feature film, which is loosely based on his own life experiences.

Photo by Donna Agusti

Clawson native brings original story to life in ‘Onward’

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published March 3, 2020


CLAWSON — Dan Scanlon directed and wrote the screenplay for Disney and Pixar’s “Onward,” Pixar Animation Studios’ 22nd feature film. It is set in a fantasy realm that looks strikingly similar to suburban Los Angeles, although the main characters are elves.

Scanlon grew up in the city of Clawson, and the film’s magical quest of two teenage brothers who want to spend a day with their father, who died when they were young, is loosely based on the relationship between him and his brother.

Scanlon’s father died in a car accident when Scanlon was 1 and his brother was 3. In the movie, younger brother Ian turns 16 and his older brother, Barley, is 19 when their mother reveals a special present for the boys from their father, who succumbed to a sickness.

Ian is voiced by Tom Holland and Barley is voiced by Chris Pratt.

“As you can imagine, we remember nothing about (our dad),” Scanlon said. “We always wondered how we were like him. That led to this idea of, what if you could spend one day with someone you lost? What would you ask? What would you say to them?”

The gift from their father turns out to be an ancient staff, a magical gem and instructions for a spell to bring him back for 24 hours so he can see how his sons grew up. Ian is skeptical because society has moved away from magic, but Barley, a history buff who believes in magic and has even memorized myriad spells, is ecstatic.

“I’m a lot like Ian,” Scanlon said. “I was shy and I lacked confidence as a kid and was awkward. My brother actually isn’t like Barley in characterization at all. My brother is also very shy and thoughtful, and he’s a computer programmer. He’s very responsible.”

He said filmmakers chose to make Barley a foil to Ian by dramatizing Barley as wilder, a little harder to love and more chaotic in order to highlight Ian’s qualities, as Ian fears chaos.

“But (my brother) is everything like Barley in his actions of being supportive and encouraging and loving to his younger brother, and that’s the point I wanted to make about my brother,” Scanlon said, adding that his brother now lives in Lansing.

Ian is able to tap into magic, and with Barley’s knowledge, is able to conjure half of their father — literally, his legs. The quest the two embark on is to locate a second gem to complete the rest of their father. It takes them on a journey that includes a tough gang of sprites, rabid unicorns and a once-fierce manticore.

“Growing up without a dad, every little piece of information I learned — his favorite color or his favorite food — was a piece of him that I could put him together with,” Scanlon said. “We thought, what if they literally had a living piece? And that’s where the idea of the pants came up.”

He said he also liked the concept of their dad being a set of legs because it tones down the seriousness and allows for some fun adventure, as well as the awkward, weird and embarrassing moments a parent is sure to cause.

“It’s an animation challenge to get a pair of legs to emote. The animators found ways to very subtly shift his weight or have his foot tap Ian’s or Barley’s, and that was a really fun challenge,” Scanlon said.

Scanlon wrote the screenplay together with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin. He said that many crew members added to the storyline along the way, including producer Kori Rae, with whom Scanlon collaborated on his directorial debut, “Monsters University,” released in 2013.

“When you tell a personal story, chances are even if people haven’t had the exact experience you had, they have had something like it, and if it comes from that true place, it’s probably going to touch people in one way or another,” he said. “So, they would tell us all their great stories, and we’d incorporate them.”

Rae said modern suburban fantasy is a new genre for Pixar.

“As technology was introduced, everyone found easier ways to do things. Magic is possible; it’s just that nobody really does it anymore,” she said in a press release about the plot of the movie. “Barley has spent his life studying how quests work, but Ian is the one capable of doing magic. They realize they need each other.”

Scanlon said the most special thing he has from his father is a cassette tape of his voice. The only words he says are “hello” and “goodbye.”

“I learned a lot about what kind of person he was by the way he said ‘hello’ nervously and excited, and then the way he said ‘goodbye’ is a little shy and awkward,” he said. “(I thought), ‘Oh, he’s like me. He’s an introvert.’”

Scanlon said he has been drawing since he was approximately 5 years old, and his mother was wonderful about encouraging but not pressuring him.

“She always guided me with a light touch, and I started doing animation when I was little and I did caricatures at events when I was a teenager,” he said. “Then I went to (the Columbus College of Art and Design) to learn how just to paint and illustrate, not necessarily animation, but I got a job working at a small animation company in Ohio.”

He said he ironically got the opportunity to work as a storyboard artist on Disney sequels, including “The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea” and “101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventure.”

“Then I took a risk and applied everywhere in California, and to my delight, Pixar was the only one that called back,” Scanlon said. “I started working there in 2001 on the first ‘Cars’ movie as a storyboard artist.”

Scanlon said he still loves to return to Clawson and stays in the city a handful of times a year, even though his family doesn’t live there anymore.

“This city means a lot to me. It’s a very comfortable place, it’s a very beautiful place, and it’s a very encouraging place. Growing up, family and friends around here were so supportive of my interest in drawing,” he said. “It’s a great place to grow up. It’s just a really wonderful and inspiring town.”

He said “Onward” is about support and how everyone has someone in their life who went above and beyond what they had to do in order to help you become the adult you are today, whether it’s a parent, a sibling, a family friend or a teacher.

“I would hope that people, if they’re so moved, would see the movie and then call that person if that person is still around and thank them. People have told me they have done that, and that has been the greatest gift,” Scanlon said. “And then beyond that, I think, also return the favor. Be that to a younger person. Be supportive. Be encouraging, because it can change a life, like it did mine, in such a drastic way.”

Actors Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Kyle Bornheimer and Wilmer Valderrama also lend their voices to “Onward,” and the score is composed by brothers Mychael Danna, who won an Oscar for the “Life of Pi” score, and Jeff Danna, who composed the score for “The Good Dinosaur” with Mychael.

The movie is rated PG and opens in U.S. theaters March 6.

For more information, visit