With a name like The Good Dinosaur, the average movie fan might think that Pixar’s vision for the upcoming dino-adventure was a singular one from the very start. A simple title, sure – but the simplest stories can prove to be the most powerful, especially in the hands of tried-and-true storytellers. But the reality couldn’t be farther from the truth, as the version of The Good Dinosaur set to hit theaters is a different animal from its earliest origins.
Normally, encountering story problems or creative leads who may not be a perfect fit can be seen as signs for concern, or in some cases, a death knell for whatever product eventually results from the process. But when Pixar claims it was all in the name of ‘getting the story right,’ it’s hard to deny them the benefit of the doubt. Especially once you hear what the story has become from the men and women now applying the finishing touches.
We got the opportunity to speak with director Peter Sohn during a recent visit to Pixar’s studios, and even if some nervousness or desperation was to be expected – or even understandable – it was nowhere to be found. Instead, it was hard to miss just how hopeful Sohn and his team are that they cracked the nut, and the story that struck a chord with them will do the same for larger audiences.
It was Sohn who began as a member of the production back in 2009, when The Good Dinosaur told the story of a young dinosaur named Arlo who found himself repressed by the larger (Amish-inspired) farming community of which he was a part. The story of Arlo embracing what makes him different, and finding his own way in the world may have been an inspiring one, but it won’t be the one told when the credits for The Good Dinosaur start to roll.
Arlo, the star Apatosaurus remains, as does the family’s reliance on farming in the American frontier. But it wasn’t the society or farming culture that took center stage when Sohn ultimately replaced the director in 2013 and was given freedom by Pixar to “find the story” all over again. He and his team found it when they headed into the Grand Teton Mountains, putting themselves in the very same spot Arlo would himself: lost, uncertain, and far, far, far from home.
The narrative that emerged hinged on nature itself as the antagonist – just as it was in some of American cinema’s greatest epics – and the boy to usher Arlo through it. Sohn explains:
Well, [taking over as director] all started with the boy and dog story. It’s a very archetypal story, and it’s been told many times. I tried to find how I connected to that. What is it about that story that I love? I don’t know what it was. I just think “Oh yeah. I love Old Yeller. I love E.T.” What is it about those movies that I love? And then understanding that growth, and then breaking that down like: “OK. In my own childhood, I was a chubby, sweatpants-wearing kid, didn’t understand the world, and there was a little sheltering of me. OK. But then what is it about the growth?”
And then understanding that in these stories… there’s the ‘buddy movie’ where it’s like: “I don’t like you, I don’t like you, I don’t like you, I don’t like you, and now we like each other!” Here, it’s like: “I don’t like you, I’m a dog. I don’t like you, I’m an animal. I’m kind of learning from you… Yeah, I’m a dog.”
In all honesty, the story pitch of “a boy and his dog story… but where the boy is a dinosaur and the dog is a boy” is compelling and original enough to turn heads. The archetype has already proven flexible enough to be applied to fantastic animals, like How to Train Your Dragon and Transformers, among others. But in the footage we were shown during our visit, the shift has an added bonus: audience members will relate to both the hero and his animal sidekick, more than they ever could for a furry or scaly accomplice.
We won’t spoil any scenes, but suffice to say that Arlo and Spot have more in common than their relative immaturity. Where Arlo is lost, Spot knows each and every stream and cliff like the back of his hand. Where Arlo is afraid, Spot knows which risks to avoid – and which to laugh off. But as Sohn suggests, the relationship between a human being and an animal is a rich one, for those willing to seek them out, far from the bright lights and luxury of city streets.
Whether working with ranchers or simply nature guides, the real lesson came once modern conveniences stripped away the person riding through open country, and the horse that carries them (or the dogs that guide them, or the wolves that make themselves known over the next mountain) were all that remained. But Sohn and his production team didn’t talk about the fear, the risks, or the discomfort: it was the sense of the bigger picture, and their place in it that seemed most lasting.
When they returned to their workspaces to make The Good Dinosaur, translating that into Arlo and Spot’s journey became the heart of the film:
Arlo has… a wholeness [by the end of the film]. This character begins to fill. That was that first thing that kind of hit me when we were researching out there. So all the people that we would meet, their interactions with their animals, their horses or their dogs, began to formulate something. And my own life with my dogs, what is that? What is it about… how do you connect to that? Is there any humanity in what that is and that relationship? That was really the core of how it all started.
The journey may be one filled with darkness for Arlo (and Spot), but when all is said and done, this is Pixar we’re talking about. That means it’s safe to assume that both characters will make it out all right, if changed by the experience. But those who know how the story took shape will know that the landscape was seen firsthand, just like the kinds of people it takes to survive in it.
There’s no question that the resulting story will be a uniquely American one, inspired by its less forgiving regions and mountain ranges. But it also seems it will be a human one, as well.
Even if it is the story of a dinosaur and his ‘dog.’
The Good Dinosaur opens in U.S. theaters on November 25th, 2015. Stay tuned for more coverage and interviews from our visit.