Two years after its original release date came and went, Disney Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur” is back from the brink of extinction.
The second movie to come from the studio this year, following the summer success of “Inside Out,” “The Good Dinosaur” had originally been announced for Thanksgiving 2013. The evolutionary path of this particular “Dinosaur” proved to be bumpy, with the original director, producer and much of the voice cast being replaced and the movie reconceived by a new team.
Director Peter Sohn replaced Bob Peterson, who remains credited (with Enrico Casarosa) for original story, and producer Denise Ream replaced John Walker.
One of Ream’s first tasks as producer was to shut the whole movie down.
“Once Pete had come on because Bob was stuck, everyone came to the realization that the movie needed more time,” Ream says. “That was in 2013, and we spent the rest of that year going all the way back to research and to focus on the story. It turned out that the research part was a big turning point for Pete.”
Research trips to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone — filled with hiking, horseback riding and whitewater rafting — persuaded the creative team to set the movie amid the vastness of giant mountains and plains of the American West. This is where the story of Arlo, an 11-year-old apatosaurus, unfolds as he is separated from his family and must make an epic, life-changing journey home.
The twist here is that the asteroid that is thought to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago has missed the Earth, so dinosaurs have the power of language and have settled the land. The herbivores, like Arlo’s family, are farmers, and the carnivores are ranchers. The humans are wordless beasts, and a little human, 6-year-old Spot, befriends Arlo and accompanies him on his journey like a faithful dog.
“When we were rethinking the movie, Denise said, ‘Let’s go to the frontier and get lost,’ so we all jumped on a plane,” director Sohn says. “I felt a real charge from what we saw in Idaho and Wyoming. I thought, ‘I can see the movie now. I can see what it can be.’ I knew I wanted the landscape to be more than scenery. It had to be a character, an emotional character and sometimes a threatening character.”
The overriding theme of the movie involves fear, embracing it and getting through it. Arlo is a fearful child who finds himself in the most frightening of situations: alone and very far from home.
“Once we started to simplify the story — a simple boy and dog story where the boy is a dinosaur and the dog is a boy — we realized there wouldn’t be a lot of dialogue,” Ream says. “It would be kind of quiet out in the wilderness. When we pitched that concept to the Pixar brain trust, the moment they said yes, I can’t tell you how relieved I was. I went into the bathroom and wept. I was so happy because I really wanted to make this movie. It really felt like our movie. That’s why I came to Pixar, to make movies like this, movies that feel risky.”
For screenwriter Meg LeFauve, who also worked on “Inside Out,” that level of simplicity was a true challenge. “All great art, from ballet to paintings, looks simple. That’s why it’s so hard to do,” LeFauve says. “It’s easier to throw more at it. In clarity and simplicity, you have many layers all working toward the same note. The theme, characters, relationships and emotional point of view have to culminate in a singular vision and emotional experience.”
Story supervisor Kelsey Mann says the challenge of simplicity, where there’s nothing to hide behind, was exciting. “I feel like a lot of animated family fare is full of stuff,” he says. “It’s very challenging to do the opposite. Fewer elements need to do a lot more. As Meg described it the other day, this story has the profound simplicity of a poem.”
Director Sohn is credited by his creative team as being the vision behind that simple and direct approach to storytelling. For him, it all comes down to fear.
“My own fears as a child, as an artist and later as a father are all still there,” he says. “That was the therapy of making this movie. You have to find a way to get through fear. I can’t tell you how scared I was to step up and direct this movie. This is a huge film, and Pixar makes amazing movies. Could I do that? I had to find what I loved about the movie and let that keep pushing me through.”
Sohn says he hopes “The Good Dinosaur,” Pixar’s 16th feature film, has a similar effect on audiences. “I would love it if my 5-year-old daughter, if she was going through something scary, has something she loves enough in her life to help her. It’s as simple as that. Arlo the dinosaur discovers what he loves, and that’s what gets him through.”
How’s the movie?
“The Good Dinosaur” was not screened for most critics in time for our print deadlines. But a few have given it lukewarm reviews (pretty much ☆☆ 1/2 ):
▪ Justin Chang, Variety: “Serving up a sweet tale of interspecies friendship and a stunning prehistoric vision of the American Northwest, ‘The Good Dinosaur’ is easily one of the great landscape films of 2015, even if what unfolds against that landscape isn’t always as captivatingly rendered. … Clever and cloying by turns, it’s a movie that always seems to be trying to evolve beyond its conventional trappings, and not succeeding as often as Pixar devotees have come to expect.”
▪ Michael Rechtshaffen, The Hollywood Reporter: “A visually breathtaking work of computer-generated animation that is ultimately unable to compensate for a disappointingly derivative script. … Hopefully next time the storytelling won’t dwell so much in the past.”
“The Good Dinosaur” opens at 7 p.m. Tuesday
Rated PG for peril, action and thematic elements