For The Danna Brothers, Pixar's New Film Is 'Uncannily Personal' At its core, Onward is a story about siblings. Mychael and Jeff Danna composed the score for the film and speak with NPR's Leila Fadel about their work together.

For The Danna Brothers, Pixar's New Film Is 'Uncannily Personal'

For The Danna Brothers, Pixar's New Film Is 'Uncannily Personal'

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At its core, Onward is a story about siblings. Mychael and Jeff Danna composed the score for the film and speak with NPR's Leila Fadel about their work together.


The new Pixar film "Onward" tells the story of an elf family in a suburban fantasy land where the digital age has erased its magic. But on Ian Lightfoot's 16th birthday, he discovers his own magical abilities that take him on a high-stakes adventure with his older brother Barley, a quest to reunite with their late father for just one day.


CHRIS PRATT: (As Barley Lightfoot) This spell brings him back.

TOM HOLLAND: (As Ian Lightfoot) Back like back to life?

PRATT: (As Barley Lightfoot) We're going on a quest.

FADEL: The twists and turns of this fantastical journey take the brothers on an emotional roller coaster that tests their bond as siblings. It's a fantasy land with centaurs, a manticore and biker fairies, but it's a relatable story, especially for the composers who scored the film. They are brothers Mychael and Jeff Danna, and they join me now from Pasadena, Calif. Thank you so much for being on the program.



FADEL: So both of you have really storied careers, many awards, recognitions. You've also done scores for movies together before. But this one was a little bit more personal, right?

M DANNA: It was. This is Mychael Danna. It was uncannily personal. And as Dan Scanlon, our director, started kind of pitching the movie, telling us the plot, we kind of looked at each other out of the corner of our eyes, going, what? This is our story. And I don't know - Jeff, maybe you asked him, but I never asked if they knew that not only are we brothers, obviously, but that our father also had passed away when we were teenagers like the elf brothers in the story.

FADEL: Right.

M DANNA: So, yeah, it was strange. And even down to little details - the father was an accountant, like our dad, and...


M DANNA: It put the hairs on the back of our neck up and made the whole process pretty interesting.

FADEL: At the center of the story is, really, the way that the loss of their father defined their relationship as brothers. Do you to relate to that?

M DANNA: Well, brothers have a way of not talking about really, really important things.


M DANNA: So our father died, you know, 40-something years ago. And it's something that we've kind of avoided (laughter) until...


M DANNA: ...Until we were forced to go through the therapy of writing music for this story of ours.

FADEL: So are you a musical family? How'd you both end up in the same field?

J DANNA: Yeah. Music was all around us growing up - my father, sort of the flagship of the music, as far as we know, I think. By the time we came around, our parents were both doing local, little theater, local light opera, sang in the church choir. My dad used to sing solos, like, at weddings. He had, like, a side-gig on the weekends. And my dad used to sit down and play the piano after dinner and sing Perry Como songs, things like that.

M DANNA: (Laughter).

J DANNA: So it was all around us. And we were encouraged to get into it. And we really embraced it.

FADEL: Well, in this movie, it's such an emotional journey. And the music is such a huge part of that. You know, I found myself laughing at points, crying at points. I just want to play this score where the two brothers are dancing and laughing together.


FADEL: So tell me about this - making this.

J DANNA: Well, so this is one of the pieces from Barley's van. And so Barley listens to this prog rock/wizard rock. So it was supposed to sort of sound like something that was of that time - or of a time - on his radio.


J DANNA: And then the moment in the film where that happens is a great moment. It's where Ian and Barley are arguing about, you know, competence and who's in charge. And, why did you lead us here? And, what a mess. And, suddenly, without giving too much away, there's a great visual aspect to that scene.

FADEL: You're also talking about a moment in their lives where they're butting heads on this quest. And I'm one of five, and we have lots of opinions. So we love each other, but we fight a lot. And I just wonder, with your working relationship, did you have these moments, too, where you butt heads over composition, or...

M DANNA: For sure. I mean, you - every collaboration has friction. And then, you know, if you're brothers, then you have a lot more history to work with...

FADEL: Right.

M DANNA: ...To have other reasons for friction.

FADEL: (Laughter).

M DANNA: But, you know, we - what we've learned over the years is that criticism and challenge actually makes your score better, makes the music better and stronger. And that's the thing that we keep coming back to working with each other.

FADEL: Yeah.

M DANNA: And we each have our own careers. But when we work together, there is that comfort of knowing that Jeff's going to call it like it is and go, you know what? That melody is not very strong or, the second half isn't really working. I'm just not feeling it - and trusting that person. And, of course, you're irritated to hear that, but you brush that aside, and then you go, OK. I've got to deal with that. If it's not working for both of us, then it's not done yet.

FADEL: I wondered, you know, if you had just one more day with your father, what would that day look like?

J DANNA: It may take me a second to think about.

FADEL: Leila

J DANNA: That's a heavy question, Leila.


J DANNA: I mean, we're both fathers now. So, I mean, I'll speak for me. And then Mychael will answer. I mean, I think that would be great to have your dad know your sons.

FADEL: Yeah.

J DANNA: You know, he could hear my musical son play music. He could watch my middle son play hockey. He could read the writing of my oldest son. And we could all go for pizza together. That'd be a pretty awesome day.

FADEL: Yeah.

M DANNA: I mean, as brothers and collaborators, when you hear your brother say exactly the right answer, I got nothing to add to that. That's perfect.

FADEL: Mychael and Jeff Danna are the composers of the latest Pixar movie, "Onward." Thank you both so much.

M DANNA: Thanks. It's really been a pleasure speaking with you.

J DANNA: Thank you, Leila.


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