‘The Good Dinosaur’ Looks Like Nothing Pixar Has Ever Done Before
I do not envy Peter Sohn.
The director behind Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur faces one heck of an uphill battle in bringing this movie to the public. It will open on November 25 after several years of delays, with plenty of notoriety and bad press about the replacement of its original director (Bob Peterson) and most of its original cast (including John Lithgow, Bill Hader, Judy Greer, and Neil Patrick Harris). It’s also coming right on the heels of Inside Out which is (at least in my opinion) an absolute masterpiece and one of the very best films Pixar’s ever produced. That would be a tough environment for any filmmaker, much less one like Sohn, who’s making his feature directorial debut after years working in the story and art departments at Pixar. (He has one short to his credit, 2009’s “Partly Cloudy.”) The only thing higher than people’s expectations for The Good Dinosaur will be their skepticism about whether a good movie can come out of all that creative turmoil.
That’s surely part of the reason Disney and Pixar invited a bunch of journalists to a screening room in New York City earlier today for an hourlong presentation about the film, its characters, and about Sohn himself, who discussed his life story and his journey from film nerd to full-fledged Pixar director. Here are a few notes from the event:
What if the Dinosaurs Never Went Extinct?
In addition to concept artwork and animation tests, the centerpieces of the presentation were three brief scenes from the film. The first was an extension of the opening of the film’s first teaser, in which the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs narrowly misses earth, leading to an alternate timeline where dinos were never rendered extinct. Sohn described this as the great “What if?” that powered the movie. Every Pixar movie, he explained, is rooted in that same question (Toy Story is “What if toys come alive when no one’s around to play with them?” Monsters Inc. is “What if there really is a monster living in your closet?”) along with a deep commitment to three aspects of the film: the world, the characters, and the story.
The River Wild
The second clip featured the title character, a timid apatosaurus named Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), as he struggles to swim after falling into a raging river. He bangs his head on a rock and passes out; when he comes to, Arlo’s floated so far from home that he’s totally lost and completely on his own. Sohn described The Good Dinosaur as “part survival movie” and explained that Arlo attempts to follow the river back to his family, which includes the characters played by Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand. This footage looked fairly intense; for a dinosaur, Arlo seemed awfully fragile.
Boy Story (and Dinosaur)
Sohn said The Good Dinosaur also belonged to the tradition of “A boy and his dog” stories like Old Yeller with the traditional roles reversed; the “boy” in this case is Arlo the dinosaur, and the “dog” is Spot, a human, a feral, animalistic human Arlo meets along his journey. Spot walks on all fours, and barks and grunts instead of speaking; he looks like a kid but acts like a canine. The third (and by far the longest) clip Sohn showed featured Arlo and Spot bonding over their mutual loss and longing for home. It’s tough to feel too emotionally moved by characters you’ve just met in what’s essentially a very high-end PowerPoint presentation, but this scene was very melancholic. It suggests The Good Dinosaur will deal with the same kinds of heavy emotional issues (like loss, loneliness, and grief) as Pixar movies like Toy Story 3, Up, and Inside Out.
Another Pixar Buddy Road Movie
Speaking of other Pixar movies, the structure of The Good Dinosaur as laid about by Sohn bore strong similarities to the classic mismatched-buddies-on-the-road-home story that’s powered so many of their films, from Toy Story to Inside Out. He claimed, though, that the relationship between Arlo and Spot was different than many other Pixar buddies, in that they actually get along well and the conflicts that arise are less about their differences of opinion (partly because Spot, as a non-verbal dog-boy, doesn’t have too many conscious opinions) than their struggle to survive amidst inhospitable surroundings and dangerous dinosaurs, including pterodactyls (like Thunderclap, voiced by Steve Zahn) and a pack of raptors.
A New Look For Pixar
What's different about The Good Dinosaur, and could be its make-or-break element, is its unusual visual style. The Good Dinosaur looks nothing like other Pixar movies. True, the characters bear the studio’s distinctive, signature appearance, with bright colors, rounded edges, and big eyes. But the world those characters inhabit looks impressively realistic. As part of the presentation, Sohn projected a series of landscapes and nature scenes; a few, like a close-up of leaves dripping with water from a rainstorm, were so incredibly lifelike they could easily pass for the real thing.
So there’s a bold contrast there, between these very detailed and naturalistic settings and their more cartoonish inhabitants. During the Q&A portion of the presentation, I asked Sohn why he and his animators chose this unique approach. He said it was a “conscious choice to [make] nature that felt threatening,” and added that they tried some tests of backgrounds that “looked a little bit more graphic, a little more blocky, but it watered down how scary and beautiful” the natural world could be.
He also noted that Arlo is meant to be an “outsider” in this world, and that the contrast between his cute design and the more rugged look of nature brought that conflict out. (He also said that “evolution” supposedly accounted for dinosaurs looking less and less like the ones in, say, Jurassic World, and more like Arlo). It’s hard to get a read on how that will play out in just a few minutes of footage, but that explanation made sense to me. And the dynamic between foreground and background felt very striking. I’m very curious to see how that all fits together in the finished product.
Influences and Inspirations
-When asked about the movies or artists that influenced The Good Dinosaur, Sohn immediately cited Carol Ballard’s The Black Stallion. He also mentioned directors David Lean and John Ford when describing the film’s “Big Sky” vistas, and his attempt to create enormous natural expanses that could dwarf a dinosaur and make him feel comparatively small. Sohn also said Arlo is 11 years old (“in dino age”) and Spot is “like 6 or 7.”
Behind the Scenes Difficulties
Asked to describe the issues necessitated the film’s delay and full-scale overhaul, Sohn replied:
In terms of raising a film, some films can get very complicated. Early on with this one, there were so many ideas to go with, it just started getting really ... heavy. For me, I really loved the heart of this thing, of being this boy and dog story.
It’s impossible to say whether Sohn solved whatever problems there were until the final product opens in theaters in November. But the sense I got from this presentation is that Sohn and his team are attempting to put the old Pixar formula into a new context. If they succeed, it could be a really exciting film.