If you made it through the moving finale of “Onward” without crying, congratulations! What might send some fans back to their tissue boxes, though, is how true to life that touching ending really is.
Co-writer/director Dan Scanlon based his Disney/Pixar animated fantasy (in theaters now) on the father he never knew, as well as the relationship with his own older brother, Bill. In the movie, quiet 16-year-old elf Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) is bestowed a wizard’s staff and spell to bring back his father, who died before he was born, so Ian and his fun-loving 19-year-old sibling, Barley (Chris Pratt), can spend one more day with him. The magic goes awry, only half their dad is conjured, and the brothers go on a journey to find another Phoenix Gem that will let them finish the enchantment.
They do find the gem: It has actually been right next to Ian’s high school the whole time, and the building turns into a raging dragon when the precious rock is touched. But before all that happens – and their dad is resurrected, if just for a brief time – Ian realizes something important: His older bro has been the real parental figure he has needed the whole time.
The conclusion Ian comes to in the movie “absolutely” reflects an epiphany Scanlon had about his sibling, and that aspect of the movie “was the first thing that we came up with,” says the director, whose father died when Scanlon was 1 and his brother was 3. He remembers spending lunches with his friend Meg LeFauve, who co-wrote Pixar’s “Inside Out” and “The Good Dinosaur,” noodling on what the story of “Onward” should be.
“I was actually telling her how much I didn’t miss my dad because I didn’t have anything to miss, (and sharing) a little bit of the guilt I felt about that,” Scanlon says. “But I had also been telling her about my brother and how he would put my paintings in college or high school up on his walls. He would show friends movies I made when I was a kid. He was always supportive of me.”
One day LeFauve rocked his world when she told Scanlon that “the reason you don’t miss your father is because your brother was your father,” Scanlon says. “And my mind exploded. I was so shocked by that. It changed my life and my relationship with my brother in the best ways.”
For the record, Scanlon points out that his older brother “is not a wild, crazy maniac” like Barley. “He’s actually a really wonderful, soft-spoken, intelligent computer programmer. But the dramatization is then you say, what if this was the last guy on Earth you thought would do this? Or what if this was a guy who frankly was trying to be a parent and not succeeding all that well? I don’t know that Barley really succeeded fully, but he tried and that’s what matters.”
One other scene in the “Onward” finale tugs some heartstrings when in the heat of magical battle, Ian gives up his chance to talk with his resurrected father so Barley can have that precious father/son time. The audience sees it unfold from Ian’s perspective, watching from afar as the two converse but never hearing their actual discussion.
Scanlon decided early on in the process that should just be a moment between Barley and his dad. “We don’t need to hear what they say. You kind of know what they say: They say goodbye. Beyond that, nothing we wrote could have been all that helpful.”