Onward For Fatherhood: Pixar’s Lessons on What It Takes To Be a Dad

Sophie Hart

Since Woody and Buzz first soared onto our screens 25 years ago, Pixar has created a legacy of animated films that not only resonates with the whole family, but that is also about family, in whatever form that takes. Exploring friendship, growing up, grief, the environment, and more, Pixar movies have always carried a meaningful message at their core. With Onward, the studio returns to one of its most popular themes – parenting. More specifically, fatherhood.

While elf brothers Ian and Barley search for the missing top half of their late dad, we’re looking back at the father figures that have been represented in Pixar flicks so far, and the lessons they teach us. Onward director Dan Scanlon, on whose childhood the story is based, shares the lessons he believes Onward teaches about fatherhood, while Fandom’s Disney community also weighs in with their thoughts on some of the dads in Pixar’s back catalogue.

Lesson 1: Get Ready to Fall in Love

We start our journey with Pixar’s fourth feature film, Monsters, Inc. (Watch Now on Disney+) While there isn’t a traditional father-child bond in the movie, it’s a perfect allegory for a first-time dad thrust into fatherhood, and all the fears — and overwhelming love — that can come with it. In a universe where monsters make a living out of scaring human children – but are literally afraid to touch them for fear of being poisoned – Monsters Inc. coworkers Mike and Sully are faced with the ultimate challenge. What do they do when a real-life kid lands on their doorstep? (Well, technically, through their door frame.)

After realising that the irresistibly cute stowaway Boo is actually pretty harmless, Mike remains insistent that she is returned to the human world. However, Sully has other ideas.

Just like a first-time dad, the panic at taking care of something so vulnerable soon gives way to a fierce protectiveness. Rather than focusing on damage control (“Put that thing back where it came from or so help me”), Sully’s priority becomes the safety and happiness of this little girl. Even though he has to say goodbye to her in the end, he puts his child-scaring career and reputation on the line to protect her. In the process, he discovers that a child’s laughter is much more powerful than their screams, and so revolutionises the Monster energy industry.

Indeed, he racks up so many dad points that he was voted the most popular Pixar father figure in our Disney community poll. It makes sense – who wouldn’t want a fearsome, yet fluffy, dad?

Summary: If you’re going to be a father for the first time, be prepared to invest all of your energy and emotion into your new bundle of joy. You will lose your heart and it will be totally worth it.  

Lesson 2: Give Them Room to Grow

Remember when we said that being a dad meant feeling fiercely protective of your offspring? Let’s dive into that with Pixar’s fifth movie, Finding Nemo. Released just a year after Sully left Boo on her side of the door, this heartfelt ocean epic brings fatherhood to the surface.

We’re used to a missing mother figure in Disney movies, but no-one was quite prepared for the opening scene of Finding Nemo. Witnessing Nemo’s mum and all of his siblings get taken by a barracuda is in equal parts upsetting and significant. Now a single father with one surviving son, Marlin will do everything to protect Nemo from harm – at the expense of either of them being truly happy.

Marlin’s journey is an epic one, both literally and emotionally. When Nemo’s exasperation at his dad’s over-protectiveness results in him being taken by divers, Marlin’s determination to retrieve him sends him into overdrive. Forced to go from one end of the ocean to another with only the forgetful Dory for company, he unwittingly has the adventure of a lifetime, taking many more risks than he ever thought he could handle. After surviving a shark attack, a jellyfish minefield, and getting swallowed by a whale, he begins to realise that clownfish are a lot more hardy than he thought – his son included.

“Marlin went the entire ocean to get his kid back that he didnt know was even alive. That is some serious devotion.” – Disney community member, Brian Uhrich 

When Marlin is finally reunited with Nemo, he’s both relieved and immensely proud of his son for surviving and thriving in his absence. Father and son share their adventures and move forward, with Marlin loosening his grip to let them both live their lives to the full.

Summary: While it’s important to protect your kids from harm, it’s also vital to give them the freedom to make their own mistakes. By letting go of your own fears and giving them room to grow, you’re showing trust in your children and they’ll respect you more in return. 

Lesson 3: It’s a Team Effort

Pixar was on a dad roll in the 2000s, following up its aquatic tearjerker with a super-family drama – The Incredibles (Watch Now on Disney+). This time we witness a different parental dynamic — a nuclear family with mum, dad, and three siblings in the picture. The struggle explored here is how a father can balance his solo ambitions with raising a family.

At the beginning of the film, Bob Parr – formerly Mr. Incredible – is miserable. Having had to shed his superhero identity, he’s trapped in suburban family life, seemingly unsatisfied by his job, his home, and even his wife and kids. However, it’s when he gets lured back into superhero life that he discovers the value of what he has right in front of him.

Keeping his mission to foil narcissistic nemesis Syndrome a secret from his super-powered family only lands Bob in mortal danger. When they come to his aid with their own unique abilities, it’s four against one. And a very lonely one at that. By communicating and working as a team, the Parrs – or should we say, The Incredibles – are a formidable unit. Whether super-powered or not, a dad is no-one without his family around him.

Summary: Whenever you think of your family as a burden, remember all the amazing things that wouldn’t be possible without them. Your kids may get on your nerves at times, but they also have traits and talents — and love and loyalty — that makes them invaluable if you band together. They can offer you support, just as you support them.

Lesson 4: Embrace Your New Role

A different interpretation of fatherhood motored onto our screens in 2006, with Pixar’s Cars. When hotshot racecar Lightning McQueen finds himself unexpectedly off-roaded to a small pitstop town off of Route 66, he’s greeted with a host of unfamiliar faces. One of these is the trusty old Hudson Hornet, Doc Hudson. Doc is initially wary of the new kid on the block, whose main focus in life is to win and win big – and there’s a good reason. Doc himself was once a racing star but got shunned once he was past his prime.

However, through his bitterness at Lightning achieving the racing career he wanted, Doc sees a lot of himself reflected in that windscreen. Their relationship soon reignites Doc’s competitive spirit, revealing his past talents in a race with the youngster. Doc finds himself giving his new mentee tips for the racetrack, and once his secret past life is revealed to the whole town, he officially comes out of retirement. This time, instead of racing, he becomes Lightning’s pit crew chief, and eventually, a trainer for aspiring racers, finding his true value once more. Shunted into a fatherly role, the old Hudson Hornet finds a new life he never knew he needed.

Summary: Accepting that you are no longer young, and up and coming, is the key to unlocking a new lease of life, and stop you pining for the past. By embracing a fatherly role, you can impart your knowledge to the younger generation, and be of even more value and importance than you were before. 

Lesson 5: Dad Doesn’t Always Know Best

From Route 66 to the romantic streets of Paris, Pixar took us on a culinary adventure in 2007 with Ratatouille (Watch Now on Disney+) – and they still had time to stir in a lesson on fatherhood. Talented aspiring chef Remy has one thing holding him back from a career in a Michelin-starred kitchen – he happens to be a rat. Naturally, he’s not very welcome in food preparation areas, and his dreams seem impossible.

Remy’s dad Django is a typical rat, driven by finding food – whether palatable or not – and keeping the family alive. He has no time or understanding for Remy’s higher pursuits, and only sees the danger in him going near humans. When Remy reveals that he’s struck a successful, if unorthodox, partnership with the hapless kitchen boy, Linguine, Django holds onto his original belief. He puts all humans in the same category, showing his son rat traps strung in a window to prove his point. He represents how parents can hold onto outdated, discriminatory — and just plain wrong — world views, often through fear of the unknown.

Remy bucks the trend and disproves his dad’s misapprehensions by opening up his own restaurant with Linguine at the end of the film. Django’s mind is opened as he feasts on Remy’s culinary delights and retells the story to his friends, clearly proud of his son and the example he’s set. A father’s role, it seems, is to be taught as well as to teach.

Summary: Being a parent doesn’t automatically make you right. It’s a two-way street, and you can learn a lot from your kids, who may grow up with a different world view. This can sometimes be more forward-thinking, and can open up your eyes, too.  

Lesson 6: It’s Never Too Late

We all remember the heartbreaking opening sequence of 2009’s Up. Without going into too many details lest we all break down in tears, it chronicles the relationship between Carl and Ellie, who meet as kids, fall in love and build a life together. Having not been able to have their own children, Ellie remains Carl’s whole world, and so losing her makes his life a whole lot darker.

Lonely and miserable, he decides to go on the adventure he and Ellie had always planned, to Paradise Falls – but he has an unexpected stowaway. 8-year-old Russell is a hyperactive Junior Wilderness Explorer who has all the badges but has never actually left the city. Plunged into a dangerous adventure, he becomes Carl’s responsibility, whether the old man likes it or not.

After spending half of the journey irritating Carl to his last nerve, the two hit an unexpected turning point. Carl finds out that Russell’s parents are divorced and his dad is largely absent. Russell describes how he misses “the little things” that he and his father would do together, which reminds Carl of the precious moments he had with Ellie. He starts to soften to the young boy, who turns out to have a brave and adventurous spirit, and by the end of the film, Carl becomes a caring figure in his life. Russell is looking for some fatherly support, and Carl finally finds a new human to love.

Summary: You can be a father without having a biological son or daughter, and you’re never too old to take on that role. A real dad (or grandad) is made by claiming responsibility for someone who needs it and choosing to love and care for them. Which is rewarding for everyone. 

Lesson 7: Patience Is A Virtue

While it wasn’t one of Pixar’s biggest hits, The Good Dinosaur is more than just a pretty prehistoric epic. A classic coming-of-age story, it has one of the most significant fathers in the studio’s canon. In a world where Apatosauruses survive by farming and collecting food, protagonist Arlo seems to be the weak link in his family. He has two more hardy, brave siblings, and struggles to fend off ‘critters’ who try to steal their supplies. His father, Poppa Henry, has faith that he’ll achieve something great with time and tries to encourage him to overcome his fears.

It’s one of Poppa’s challenges to Arlo that sends him on the ultimate adventure — forcing him to face his fears, however unexpectedly. When he tries to get Arlo to chase after a human boy who has been stealing their food, Poppa gets submerged in the river trying to help his injured son, and dies. Like Simba in The Lion King, Arlo is consumed with guilt – but he’s also miles away from home. On his long and arduous journey back to his remaining family, he bonds with the human child he was supposed to kill, and they protect each other from a series of terrifying predators.

Having unwittingly overcome his fears on the journey, Arlo finds himself in dire straits, but his dad comes to him in a vision. He’s proud of his son, not just for becoming braver, but also for teaching him that he didn’t need to kill his enemy, and, in fact, by not doing so, a mutually beneficial relationship can — and did, in this case — develop. Encouraged and emboldened, Arlo returns to his mum and siblings, ready to make his mark in the family. He just needed time, patience and his own reason to take the leap.

Summary: Dads need to understand that not every kid is the same, and that they do not have to follow in their father’s footsteps. The film highlights the pitfalls of comparing children. If one child takes longer to find their place than others, support is crucial to helping them find their true potential along the line. Faith and trust are much more valuable than the encouragement of competitiveness. 

Lesson 8: A Father’s Love Never Ends

Here comes another heartstrings-tugger. Pixar’s 2017 hit Coco stimulates our tear ducts with its touching story of love, loss, and the importance of family – particularly the loving bond between a father and daughter.

Young Miguel is anchored to a Mexican tradition which states that family is the most important thing in the world, and betraying your relatives erases you from history. Even though the spirits of your ancestors can visit earth once a year, it’s only by invitation. Miguel’s great-great-grandfather, a musician, apparently abandoned his family, and, as a result, is absent from the Ofrenda, and music is banned in the house. The only relative who would remember him is Mamá Coco, but dementia has affected her memory.

However, after accidentally visiting the Land of the Dead, Miguel not only discovers who his great-great-grandfather truly is, but that he never intended to leave his family for long at all. Héctor was about to return home from touring as a musician, realising he missed his wife and daughter too much, but died before he could make it back. After years of neglect, he’s still determined to get his photo back on the Ofrenda and return to his little girl, the now elderly Mamá Coco.

“Héctor was assumed to be a neglectful parent at first. But when you learn more about him, you’ll see he’s actually a well-meaning man who truly loves and cares about his family.” – Disney community member, Junglechampion2019

In a moving flashback, we see him playing the now-famous song ‘Remember Me’ to his beloved child. It’s Miguel’s rendition of this song to his great-grandmother that eventually sparks her memory of her father, unearthing his story and allowing him to reunite with his family after all those years. In Coco’s case, a father’s love never ends, but — powerfully — survives in our memories.

Summary: This one goes out to the kids. Remember that, in nearly every case, your parents’ love lasts beyond their time on earth and lives in you. You can keep their spirit alive by remembering things they loved and celebrating them. 

Lesson 9: Dads Are Pretty Heroic

And so we come to the penultimate lesson in class, courtesy of a familiar superfamily. 14 years after their big-screen debut, the Incredibles return for another family adventure. The action picks up right where it left off, but this time Helen Parr – aka Elastigirl – sees herself thrust into the spotlight. The Parrs are given a choice – either remain in hiding and never use their superpowers again, or send Helen on a secret mission to make ‘Supers’ legal and respected once more.

In the interests of themselves and their kids, they choose the latter. Which means that Bob has full responsibility for the household in Helen’s absence.

Incredibles 2 dives headfirst into the challenges of parenting, specifically being a lone father, with Bob’s story. As if it wasn’t hard enough to feed and water the family, help his son with his complicated maths homework, and try not to embarrass his teenage daughter, he has a much bigger challenge – baby Jack-Jack’s super-powers have emerged and they are completely out of control.

Naturally, the former Mr. Incredible soon realises that being an unsupported dad is much harder than being a superhero. Exhausted, he calls on his friends to help – fashion icon Edna Mode to design a suit to control Jack-Jack, and super pal Lucius – aka Frozone – for moral support.

“I relate to Mr. Incredible the most. Having a family of my own now, I would do anything to protect them.” — Disney community member, NSAllRed

By the skin of his teeth, Bob manages to keep the family together, and becomes closer to his kids through his vulnerability and spending quality time with them. His success builds an even stronger team that rises to the challenge when they need to fight together in the film’s finale. A family who slays together, stays together.

Summary: Dads, give yourself a pat on the back every once in a while! Fatherhood is a crazy juggling act, and while no-one does it perfectly, you’ve done pretty well if your kids are happy and healthy. (Also, if you’re lucky enough to have a partner by your side, they’re pretty awesome too.) 

Lesson 10: Step-Fathers Aren’t Evil Personified

We’ll leave this one to Onward director Dan Scanlon, on whose childhood the premise for the film is based. Like Ian in the film, Dan has no memory of his father because he passed away when he was just a year old, and his elder brother — represented by Barley in Onward — was three.

“Being supportive is true for any parent. Really being supportive, and encouraging to a young person; going above and beyond to help [is an important lesson in this film],” Scanlon tells Fandom. “And just the idea that any of us can be that to someone, even if we are not a father or a mother; if we’re a brother, or sister, or even a friend or a teacher, that we all have that opportunity to help people out.”

This echoes lessons touched upon in films like Cars and Monsters, Inc, which both featured father figures rather than biological dads. It’s clearly still an important lesson to learn. Onward is an interesting proposition, since it introduces both an absent (then partly-present) father and step-father into the mix. And while Ian and Barley’s mother’s new partner struggles to get it right, it’s not for want of trying.

“The boys and Colt Bronco — half horse, half man — they’re not comfortable with each other,” says Scanlon. “It’s new to both of them. And it’s hard for both of them too, to see each other’s point of view, which I think is pretty typical in the early days of being in a stepparent and stepkid relationship. What I like about the movie is where they are challenged throughout the film to get to know each other and accept each other, which I think is unique, when a lot of films of the past show the stepparent as the most evil person in the world.”

Summary: The relationship between stepfathers and stepchildren can be a tricky one to traverse, but the key is understanding, on both sides, that the stepparent is not there to replace the biological father but to fill a different but no less valuable guardian role. Stepfathers should strive to get to know stepchildren well — and vice versa — as the route to acceptance; and support and encouragement is everything.

Onward hits screens on March 6.

Additional reporting: Kim Taylor-Foster

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Sophie Hart
Social and Programming Producer @ FANDOM. Usually found watching Disney films, playing with LEGO or baking. Sometimes simultaneously.