The Pixar Theory: How ‘Onward’ Fits In The Pixar Universe


When the first trailer for Onward dropped, I was immediately hit with a flood of questions about how it could possibly share the same universe as all of the other Pixar films from Toy Story to Coco. As soon as I watched the trailer, I had more than a few ideas and predictions, but I of course wanted to wait and see the film for myself before drawing any conclusions. Well, that time has come.

In case you’re new here, The Pixar Theory is a fan project I started back in 2013 in an effort to connect all of the Pixar films through a single, all-encompassing timeline. Since then, the theory has really taken off and I always get a real kick out of the branching theories people come up with and contribute to this site and elsewhere. The idea is simple: every Pixar film, according to this theory, exists in the same universe. Going deeper they share a strong narrative about what it means to be human in a world where anything is possible, including the apocalypse. Fun right?

I published a book called The Pixar Theory in 2015, which fleshed the whole fan theory out in a more meticulous fashion. But a couple of years ago, the book switched publishers, and I went to work revamping the theory into a brand new book that will include plenty more Pixar films, including Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, Coco, and soon, Onward (maybe Soul, too, which comes out in June).

But I don’t want to keep fans of the theory waiting long. Though I’ll certainly need more time to finalize the Onward chapter of the theory with all of the easter eggs and narrative connections you’d expect, I can at least give a sneak preview right now into where Onward fits in the timeline, plus maybe a few extra details.


Don’t worry. I’m not spoiling any of the story elements of Onward. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, you can keep reading without having to worry about having any surprises ruined for you. But you will get a sneak peek into the world of Onward and what it’s like on a basic level.

Directed by Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), Onward is about two brothers who go on a quest to find a magical gem that will bring their late father back to life for one, single day. You see, Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) never got a chance to even meet his father, who died right before he was born. His brother Barley (Chris Pratt) only has a handful of memories about their dad, because he too was very young when this tragic event took place.

Here’s the catch. These brothers aren’t human, and the world they live in has more in common with “Dungeons & Dragons” than it does a world like ours today. Ian and Barley are elves, and the opening of the film explains that their world once contained many of the fantasy elements (like magic and dragons) that we’d see in a book written by J.R.R. Tolkien. The big difference is that there are no humans whatsoever in this world, not even in the visual history shown onscreen. And all of these fantastical creatures like unicorns, gnomes, trolls, and centaurs discovered the modern conveniences of electricity and indoor plumbing all on their own, making their world a parallel to the human one of 2020.


The premise is a fun one. We get to see these traditionally old-school fantasy characters living in a modern world with cities, freeways, and themed restaurants. But lurking in the background is a hint of the magic that was once commonplace, only to be replaced by the perceived convenience of lightbulbs and automobiles. Centaurs don’t need to run 70MPH anymore because they have, well, cars.

So…how does this work for a Pixar movie? You might be wondering how it’s possible for a modern version of “Middle Earth” to exist anywhere close to the same one containing superheroes and Andy’s toys. This world has two moons, even! Is it another planet? Another dimension? What’s the deal?


Onward takes place in a section of the Pixar Theory timeline we’ve been curious about for years: in between the events of WALL-E and Monsters Inc. (also A Bug’s Life, which is shortly after WALL-E). As you may remember from the original theory, WALL-E ends with the humans of Earth returning home after centuries of being in space aboard the Axiom. While gone, the cars of Cars roamed the planet until running out of fossil fuels. But we’ve had little to go on when it comes to how humans were replaced with “monsters,” the animal-hybrid creatures who have their own modern society allowing them to go back in time to steal human energy (or…magic?) from the emotions of children, as we see in Monsters Inc.

Monsters University shows us that the monsters have been honing their scaring skills since at least 1313, when the university itself was founded. Onward hints at what this time might’ve been like for these diverse creatures, which aren’t very dissimilar to monsters. Remember, the timeline was reset for these creatures at some point in the far future, so 1313 for them would be thousands of years in the future for us.


Simply put, the monsters of Monsters Inc. and Monsters University are part of the same society as the fantasy creatures we see in Onward. In Onward, we only get to know a small corner of this world, and it likely takes place many years before Monsters University, because it still contains many remnants of folklore, like wizards. But the Monsters films show us Monstropolis, which is more similar to a human society with little hint to the past. That’s because their world is more closely influenced by human society, as this is where Monsters Inc. is located, so this part of the world has a close connection to the human world of the past, which may have influenced the customs of this particular city.

For all we know, many of the towns and cities outside of Monstropolis are more similar to the one we see in Onward, which is clearly located closer to where magic was at its strongest. Put another way, Monstropolis resembles America because of its “new world” energy. But in Europe, it’s easier to find historical landmarks closely tied to the legacy of the past, which we see laid out a few times in Onward.

Of course, there are plenty more clues to consider and dissect. We see in Onward that magic does still exist, like the magic we see in Brave, in fact. The elements of the dead coming back to life are an obvious callback to how Day of the Dead works in Coco, and at various points in the movie, you could consider the magical action seen onscreen as something out of The Incredibles. The running theme, however, is that these powers are governed by emotion. In order for elves to perform magic effectively, they have to use their “heart’s fire” as a means of channeling magic. And as we see in the movie, only elves and other humanoid creatures appear to have the ability to use any kind of magic at all, hinting at the possibility that they are in fact the descendants of the humans who were aboard the Axiom and “re-inherited” the Earth.


Humans are batteries in the Pixar universe. Their emotions can power toys, cars, and entire cities ( as seen in Toy Story, Cars, and Monsters Inc., respectively) But what happened to them after WALL-E and A Bug’s Life, when there were barely any humans to be found? Well, it’s possible they gradually changed into a new species, or bred into what would eventually be known as elves. And over time, they’d die out all the same, because we learn in Onward that not all elves have “the gift” of using magic. Eventually this ability would apparently disappear completely, forcing “monsters” to go back in time to harvest the energy needed to power their world. Perhaps these creatures evolved into scary monsters out of necessity, because it would be the only way for them to effectively scare children for centuries, weeding out all of the “nice-looking” creatures in favor of the scarier ones.

That’s not to say some of the creatures of Onward are helpless unless they have some connection to the humans of the past. Dragons breathing fire and pixies being able to fly can be easily compared to the heightened abilities of some monsters, like Randall, who can turn invisible. But when it comes to outright magic, the source always seems to come back to humans.

There’s a lot more to figure out with Onward, like why there are two moons, as opposed to just one. I have a few theories about this, but I’d like to see the film a couple more times to finalize my thoughts on how this is possible. It’ll also be fun to revisit the Monsters Inc. movies to find more direct comparisons between the world of Onward and the one where we meet Mike and Sulley. I’ll also be scouring the film for more easter eggs and cameos revealing all of the clues we’ve come to expect from these movies, so please stay tuned for the new and improved book, The Pixar Theory. I promise it’ll be worth the wait.

Before we part, I definitely want to praise the incredible work of Dan Scanlon and the fine folks at Pixar who did an incredible job making Onward. It’s as wonderful and heartwarming as many of Pixar’s other recent work, like Inside Out and Coco. The core message of the film pertains to brotherhood and how memories carry us through tragedy and toward the adventures of the future. I hope you all like crying in public, because yes, this is another Pixar tearjerker. I simply can’t wait to see it again and again.

Thanks for reading this. Be sure to say hey on Twitter: @JonNegroni

All images courtesy of Disney/Pixar

44 thoughts on “The Pixar Theory: How ‘Onward’ Fits In The Pixar Universe

  1. I agree that Onward takes place between Wall-E (and A Bug’s Life) and Monsters. The humans and bugs of Earth evolved over millennia into the fantasy creatures of Onward. And something happened during those centuries that either caused the moon to split or another “moon” like object to enter into Earth’s orbit. And then over more centuries, the fantasy creatures of Earth evolved into the monsters, and the second moon somehow disappeared.

    And as a side note: there is a small figurine of Pepita in The Manticore’s Tavern. It’s sitting next to a globe on a shelf behind the arcade section of the restaurant (she also shows up in the antique store next to another alebrije figurine In Toy Story 4). Which leads me to theorize that Blazey herself is an alebrije. She shows Barley where the first Phoenix gem is in the gift from dad and she shows Laurel the two cards from Quests of Yore in Ian’s room. She acts as a spirit guide to the family. And even her vibrant coloration looks like a Land of the Dead version of an alebrije.

    PS: Trying to figure out how a piñata of Mike Wazowski shows up in Santa Cecilia in Miguel’s time…my best way of explaining that is just that through Sully’s and Boo’s visits through her door, Mike becomes a thing of lore to the humans. Maybe Boo tells her human friends about Mike and Sully and one of them writes children’s stories about them and those stories become popular enough to warrant Mike becoming a pop culture figure who gets piñatas made of him.

  2. Ok, I totally get the piñata thing, AND IT’S HILARIOUS. Still don’t get why there are two moons, but I’m hoping Jon will answer that soon.

  3. Also… anybody notice that the latest three movies (Coco, Onward, and Soul) all have to do with something involving the living dead? #Disturbed.

  4. I get what you’re saying, but I like SuperCarlinBrothers theory much better. They think it takes place on another planet where another axiom crashed. They sped up their technological advancements and weened out Magic.

    Keep up the good work!



  5. What If Onward Came before everything, even the Good Dinosaur, and they made major strides in technology. But then something bad happened, like maybe they second moon fell out of the sky. After that all of humanity was wiped out. And That’s why all the other Pixar movies only have 1 moon

  6. I just had the most interesting idea. So, I read the Pixar Theory for the first time a couple weeks ago, and now I’ve become kind of obsessed with it. Well, anyways, I was reading the comments for Pixar Theory Part 4: How Finding Dory Fits Into The Pixar Universe. Someone said that maybe Planes wasn’t the only Disney-made CGI-animated film, and Zootopia fit in as well. So I was thinking about that probably Zootopia fit in either before or after Onward. Before would mean that humans had died out after A Bug’s Life. Animals had absorbed much human energy and become very humanlike, with humanlike goals, intelligence, and they (generally) walked on fours. The purple flower drained away their human energy and brought them back to their original primal form(note.) The humans died out and the animals were fighting, but to survive, they stopped killing each other, banded together, and built a civilization. (As shown in the wolf play.) Eventually they evolved so much they massively tapped into magic power and created a new, volatile version of the Middle Ages, wasting away the power they used to fuel magic. (Note this magic probably changed them further into new species.) So they used technology again and this moved to Onward. After Onward they ran out of power to fuel their machines completely, and attempted to use magic but instead they mutated even more, furthering their evolution and completing their changes into monsterhood. After this, they used the only magic they had to time travel and drain power from humans so they could keep their civilization from falling to ashes. That fits into the Pixar Theory fine. After would mean most humanoids died out and access to magic in any way other than intelligence and emotions disappeared, forcing them to revert back to technology(as they had changed to magic after the time of Onward.) They ran out of power and evolved more to monsters, used the remains of magic to time travel and drain power from humans, and it moved on to the setting of Monsters Inc and Monsters University. These are both interesting ideas by themselves, but this made me think about dividing the timeline into ages based on the creatures currently in power, including the Dinosaur Age, the Human Age, the Age of the Machines, the Shared Power Age, and the Animal Age. I suddenly had an aha moment when I was thinking about it. Jon, you said that magic came from some prehistoric creatures that developed without the asteroid. But I had this idea. Without the extinction of dinosaurs and many other prehistoric creatures, things continued to populate the Earth. There were so many creatures fighting to survive that it became a struggle for survival, this is clear. But in this struggle, many things had to evolve to survive. It’s likely that dinosaurs(and possibly some other things) became smarter to survive. Especially dinosaurs, because their time came closer and closer, and they were hunted to near extinction. Survival became tough. They got smarter and smarter to survive, and with evolution they unlocked a new level of intelligence. They became eventually smarter than humans are today. They unlocked a powerful form of thoughts, intelligence, and emotions. This power wasn’t necessarily magic, but we’ll call it that. In individual creatures, this imagination is powerful enough to be used as a form of energy. In a large number of them, it’s a real power. It’s magic. These creatures probably did affect the planet some with their magic, it just wasn’t very significant and what did happen wasn’t shown in The Good Dinosaur. But the creatures themselves were massively affected. It was shown in the film that some things other than dinosaurs had their intelligence evolved but none were as smart as the dinos themselves. This was because not only did they have trouble surviving in these rough times, too- forcing them to evolve and become smarter- there was another aha moment I had here. Like you said, Mr. Negroni, if you’re around creatures with this powerful form of intelligence long enough, you harness the energy, and gain, and I quote from the Finding Dory article, “humanlike personalities and capabilities.” So these other species gained some of this power. They weren’t massively affected because by the time the dinosaurs had reached this level the number of dinosaurs had hugely declined, so this small number didn’t have that much energy in store. But many of the species that didn’t evolve or didn’t evolve in any even semi-significant way probably died out in these terrible times. It seemed that most of the creatures that could survive without intelligence didn’t evolve but the majority of them didn’t die out. Things like frogs, insects, and birds who were small and weak enough to survive without intelligence, by not being noticed, at least by much bigger creatures, so they didn’t need to naturally evolve. Plus these things probably stayed away from the bigger creatures most of the time out of fear, so they came into very little contact with creatures with an imagination. Other things that could survive without being extremely intelligent, even with creatures going extinct all over the place, were things that were agile and dexterous and/or living high up in the trees were they were mostly protected from the rest of the world. One species of creature that was both of these things, dexterous and agile as well as living high up in the trees, was apes. Apes were pretty safe up there and didn’t need to evolve. So probably they lived for millions of years, but eventually times reached a peak in roughness, at the same time that dinosaurs and their close relatives such as plesiosaurs and pterodactyls were nearing total, absolute, complete extinction. This was from shortly before the Good Dinosaur to shortly after it. By ‘shortly’ I mean a period of hundreds, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of years. Actually maybe more than that. Maybe HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of years. That part is impossible to know at the moment- but the point is that at this peak, even apes, the way they were living high up in the trees, swinging and jumping and speeding around, they starting coming into contact with larger, more dangerous creatures. Things were so bad that flying creatures attacked them, either to eat them, to get their trees as shelter, or, more simply, they had been driven insane by the terror and were just berserk, and that must have happened a LOT in this apocalypse(or much more than it would have in normal times at least. Things might have been driven berserk from rabies and other diseases, too, after all, they’re biting, fighting, and constantly coming into contact with other creatures, and they’ve been eating dirty food and drinking dirty water because they’ll take whatever they can get when it comes to consuming.) Plus with creatures fighting to survive, as I’ve already said, there’s mass evolution, and not just intelligence, things becoming bigger, faster, stronger, gaining new powers, able to spurt radiation, release blasts of energy, etc. They’ve found ways to reach where the monkeys are high up in the trees, whether from incredibly massive size, impressive climbing skills, new wings, whatever. And not just reach, smash trees to the ground, break them in half, make ranged attacks, on and on and on and on. So the apes evolve to gain intelligence and survive. All of them become vastly smarter to put them at the intelligence they are now in our world today(something else probably happened in our world, in actuality, to make them evolve their intelligence to survive.) Some of them began dropping to the ground and fighting. Without going on trees and with fighting added on, they needed their arms much more than their legs. So they started using the arms more than their legs, to fight, to grip things, and they had to change. Their legs changed, too, so instead of using them to grip things, they were used to stand and walk, and over time lost their gripping ability(at least mostly). The apes lost a significant amount of hair, too, probably because they came down to a hot area, so they didn’t need it, whereas in the trees they were in the shade all the time and received plenty of wind due to being high up, so it was cool there. The apes not only evolved their intelligence, but the chances are they came into contact with a ton of dinosaurs when they got down from the trees, giving them some power. They came into contact with more dinos and intelligent creatures and gained more intelligence. The apes evolved over the course of thousands of years(or millions) and became humans. They probably began evolving long before the peak but finished after The Good Dinosaur. We see dinosaurs handing the mantle of power to humans in The Good Dinosaur, at the time of the peak. The result was in the end of this millions-of-years-long apocalypse, humans became the dominant species. The other intelligent creatures mostly faded away, but it did have some effects on the planet, resulting in new creatures that don’t exist on our planet. I’m mainly talking about the weird bird in Up. Anyway, humans continue evolving, but much more slowly without other intelligent creatures to continue their advancement(as dinosaurs are dead.) After hundreds of thousands of years they finally reach the point we are now. At their version of 900-1100 AD Scotland, Boo has harnessed this form of magic. It appears that wood itself is not a source of magic like you were suggesting in the original Pixar Theory article, but rather a strong conductor and harnesser of magic. Ever since she saw Sully, she’s been spending her whole life trying to get back to him. She remembers the doors and must have done an experiment with wood. Her imagination seems to be strong so somehow she harnessed it into wood. She’s been obsessed with wood and doors and finding a way to get back to him. I believe in the Incredibles movies people must have come into contact with a form of magic and used it to become superheroes, like they had seen in films and read in comics. The government was freaked out by these magical beings, these “Supers”, and tried to lock them away because the exposure of humans to magic was weighing down the civilization. You might think the reason machines attacked Supers was because they wanted to bypass humanity’s best defenses so they could take control. But remember in Wall-E? All the machines in BnL did to humans was baby them and get energy from them. Their goal wasn’t to destroy humans. Their goal was just to keep getting energy from them and keep babying them. It kept them alive, because it kept humans from destroying them, terribly abusing them, and it kept them supplied with plenty of magical energy. They eradicated the Supers because the Supers were humans absorbing magical energy in giant amounts. This was taking away from the magical energy the machines were gaining. The machines killed Supers to stop the humans from getting all the energy. Because while the machines wanted to be in power, they didn’t want to destroy humanity, they just wanted to keep getting energy. For this goal of world domination, the machines created BnL. Meanwhile, the animals were rapidly gathering energy and evolving. Eventually, because of the bad treatment they were getting, they attempted to destroy both the machines and the humans. The machines fought alongside the humans and eradicated the animals, but insects, birds, and a small number of other animals still managed to survive. This probably happened in the late 21st century, because BnL took over completely at that time and it was BnL that massively increased pollution, so that was when the animals attacked. Well, you know the WALL-E story from there on out. Machines were left to populate the world, cars that had civilizations similar to that of humans. These cars had no human energy, no imagination, so they always had to harness fossil fuels. These fuels got so low they harnessed other things in Planes, because the energy drought had gotten massive after new, more advanced cars were developed in Cars 3, cars that drained tons of fossil fuels. The loss of energy wiped out the machines, proving how dependent they, as well as animals, are on imagination energy. After WALL-E liberated the humans they returned to Earth, but the surviving animals grew in power and intelligence due to the human energy they were exposed to, and their evolution was once more furthered. With all the radiation still remaining on the planet humans died a lot, and only hundreds of years later, a small number of humans were still there. Intelligent animals became the dominant species. Their civilizations were similar to that of people. Eventually, this led to the events of Onward and Zootopia, whichever came first. Either way after those events animals were the sole powers on the planet, and they evolved into monsters not much time later. But the energy they still had faded away. As shown in Onward, instead of gaining energy from humans, creatures used their own imaginations to power their magic. But at this rate the Earth’s fuels were annihilated. Oil gone, electricity gone, technology just didn’t work for them anymore. At some point they stopped using technology entirely and reverted to magic, never to return. Most likely Zootopia is before Onward, because Onward looks closer to Monsters Inc than Zootopia does, since Zootopia has mostly normal animals, who have reached the peak of intelligent evolution. Now, at the time of Onward, they’re experiencing straight-up mutation and turning into monsters. Plus with the way it looks in Onward it won’t be that long before they revert completely to magic, and in Zootopia it doesn’t look like that at all. In fact, in Zootopia, it appears they haven’t figured out how to use their own imaginations to cast any sort of magic, whatsoever. They’re still using technology entirely. Obviously there are hundreds of years of evolution, mutation and discovery in between Zootopia and Onward, but the animals are rapidly learning and evolving. By Onward they’re much, much more evolved than humans, but at Zootopia they’re just a little bit less evolved than people. Anyway, sometime after this, they run out of magic and the evolution process pretty much ends. The last civilization that’s still surviving is fading without power. They use wood and the only bits of magic they have left to construct time-traveling doors. Using these doors, they harness human emotion. They start with fear but soon realize that joy is a hundred times more powerful. This further proves the imagination power. By the time of Monsters University and Monsters Inc animals have probably been monsters for a long time, hundreds of years, because it seems like it’s a pretty normal thing to them, definitely not new. We can guess that the monster calendar began when the whole “emotion draining” system was constructed. So 1,313 years later Monsters University has been made. I know it’s at least a hundred years past that by the time of the film Monsters University, 700 or 800 years at most. So essentially 1,400-2,000 years after the monsters began their system. And the monster system most likely began about 1,500 years after A Bug’s Life. Zootopia was probably shortly after A Bug’s Life, but Onward may have been only a few centuries before the monster system began. The total is Monsters University takes place 2,900-3,500 years after A Bug’s Life. This means Monsters University took place somewhere between the years 5,800-6,500! Whew! Over 1,000 years after the estimated time.
    The last thing I have to say is about Soul, the new Pixar film that came out last year. Soul is about souls gaining their personality energy- their magic- before arriving on Earth. It’s likely how dinosaurs gained their magic has something to do with the powers that be we see in Soul- the quantum creatures appearing in a form our simple human mind can understand.
    Whew, that was a lot of words!

  7. Will you make a Pixar Theory chapter about Luca, the new Pixar film which takes place during the 1950s-1960s, right before the machines must have come up with the idea to create BnL? I have my own thoughts on it I’d like to share. I think the strange monsters we see in Luca are just especially evolved fish which have been exposed much more to humans than most animals have, and due to such, are evolved to the time of Onward or past. (Warning: spoilers ahead.) The sea monsters’ reveal shows the sentient animals taking a rise in society. According to advertisement, Luca was developed for merely the point of showing a pre-puberty friendship, and while that may be a part of the film, the actual premise of it is a huge historical event that leads to one of two things: 1. Certain sentient animals become a part of society, but they get annoyed with constant pollution and BnL’s manipulation. This leads to tension and eventually a war. 2. These animals are shunned from society(maybe not immediately, but at some point.) This causes an increase in anger among the sentient animals and speeds up the path to the big battle.

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