Most of the deleted scenes included as bonus features on Blu-ray and digital releases of major motion pictures allow viewers to see story beats or jokes that proved inessential to the finished cut. But this missing scene from Onward that Yahoo Entertainment is premiering today provides a revealing look at a substantially different version of Pixar’s latest animated adventure, which is coming to Disney+ on April 3. Or, as director Dan Scanlon tells us semi-jokingly, “This sequence really taught us what not to do.” (Watch the scene above.)
Released in theaters on March 6, just before the coronavirus pandemic shut down multiplexes all over the world, Onward follows two elven brothers as they embark on a magic-infused quest to spend one last day with their dearly departed father. In the version of the film that briefly played in theaters — and is currently available to purchase digitally — odd couple siblings Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) get a crash course in the magical arts while on their ticking-clock mission. But Scanlon tells us that the film started production with an alternate structure, one that had Ian putting his spell-casting abilities to the test in the first act, before the quest kicked into gear in Act 2. That’s the motivation behind the deleted training montage above, where the magically-inclined teenage elf practices lifting rocks and even a refrigerator with varying degrees of success. “It’s two brothers setting off fireworks in a parking lot, essentially,” the filmmaker says. “It felt like what you do when you’re bonding and goofing off together.”
And it’s not just the film’s structure that’s different: This deleted scene also reveals that Ian and Barley aren’t quite the same characters we meet in the theatrical cut. “In this version of the movie, Ian wanted to be a wizard from the very beginning of the film, and it was actually Barley who was kind of indifferent to magic,” Scanlon reveals. “Barley was still into metal and rock, and still a screw-up, but it was Ian who really wanted to figure out how to do real magic based on all the book learning he’d done over the years. Barley just came along to help him not get caught doing, because this was also a version of the story where magic was looked down upon and they didn’t want their mom finding out they were doing it. It led to this really fun sequence of Ian slowly getting his powers and Barley getting more invested in that.”
As Scanlon explains, part of the process of making a movie at Pixar is hosting multiple screenings of in-progress features. “We do about nine screenings of the movie internally using storyboards to get notes from our fellow filmmakers,” he reveals, adding that the training montage remained in the movie up until the third screening. At that point, though, it was identified as being the root problem with the film as a whole. “One of things we noticed is that by the end of this scene, Ian seemed to be a pretty powerful wizard. That hurt the rest of the movie, because Ian already knew how to do this magic throughout the course of the quest, so there wasn’t really a lot of conflict. In that moment, we realized that his training should be the movie — not just a sequence or a montage. The movie should be about Ian growing.”
In the same “Eureka!” moment, Scanlon also realized that Barley needed to be the magic-obsessed one of the pair. “The audience couldn’t get in Ian’s shoes because he already know so much about something we knew so little about. But once we switched it and made Barley the one who was interested in magic, the audience could learn about it along with Ian, and the playful silliness of magic felt more fun. That’s really where the movie clicked into place.”
Interestingly, Barley’s role-reversal resulted in another major narrative change: removing a female character who was supposed to join the brothers on their quest and provide a steady source of information (and jokes) about fantasy geek-dom. “We had a character named Jenny who was really into fantasy and role-playing games,” Scanlon says. “But we found the boys didn’t have much conflict: It was really them fighting with her. I remember one of the story artists saying, ‘It feels like we’re making a family road movie about a family and their friend.’ And I thought, ‘Oh boy that’s true. Oops!’ It wasn’t until we gave a lot of her personality to Barley that the film was always what it was meant to be: the story of a family and these two brothers.”
Even though the training sequence hit the cutting room floor as Onward’s story evolved in a different direction, Scanlon says that its spirit lives on in a scene that comes late in the theatrical cut. As their quest nears its endgame, Barley and Ian spend a long night riding an oversized cheese puff through an underground river, practicing spells along the way. “To me, that’s what we loved about the training sequence: You really felt like the two brothers were bonding and goofing off and having fun with magic. So sometimes these big sequences can find their way back into the film a small way.”
Now that Onward is available for home viewing, viewers can also more readily spot the small Easter eggs that Pixar animators include in every release. “The Pixar ball is there,” Scanlon says. “That’s somewhere in the Manticore’s tavern. We also have a lot of fantasy Easter eggs; there’s a group of Pixar artists called the Fellowship who are really into fantasy and they added jokes here and there. There’s one that’s my attempt at a fantasy joke and no one’s ever going to get it, because it’s such an obscure reference! All I’ll say is that it’s closer to the end of the movie.” In other words, you might need some of Ian’s magic to spot it.
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