It’s kind of amazing that The Good Dinosaur is hitting theaters in a few weeks. And it actually looks great. Just a couple of years ago, we kept hearing The Good Dinosaur was in the midst of a huge creative crisis. So we talked to director Pete Sohn and producer Denise Ream to find out how they saved the movie.
Some minor spoilers ahead...
Bob Peterson, who had co-directed the Oscar-winning film Up, came up with the idea for The Good Dinosaur, about a world where the dinosaurs never went extinct.
So Peterson seemed like the natural choice to direct Good Dinosaur—but he ended up getting removed in mid-2013, when the film was only about nine months away from its scheduled release date in early 2014. Producer John Walker also left the film at the time, to go work on Brad Bird’s live-action movie Tomorrowland.
Not only that, but the film’s cast was shaken up—first co-star John Lithgow was telling people that he was going to be going back to do all new dialogue for the film, and then Lithgow was replaced, along with most of the rest of the supporting voice cast. There were rumors flying around that Peterson’s version of the film had imagined the dinosaurs as “Amish farmers,” a concept that was scrapped.
So what happened? When we went to Pixar HQ for the movie’s press day a month ago, we were lucky enough to sit down for one-on-one interviews with Sohn and Ream, and they told us why The Good Dinosaur had to be retooled.
“Sadly, it happens more often than any of us would like,” said Ream. “The previous director, Bob Peterson, just got stuck. And Pete [Sohn] had been on from the beginning, helping him develop the movie. [Sohn] basically was the co-director.” (At Pixar, the co-director assists the director, in a sort of subordinate role.)
Peterson “basically took it as far as he could.” The choices to replace directors on films, as Pixar has done a handful of times, “are serious decisions,” adds Ream. “It’s given a lot of thought and care. Bob still works at Pixar [and] he’s a beloved member of the studio. He helps out on a lot of the movies. We care about him, but he just needed help getting the movie done. And Pete was sort of the obvious person to do that.”
“I love Bob,” Sohn said, adding that he had been really glad that “he allowed me to help develop this thing and become his co-director.”
In the final version of The Good Dinosaur, it’s a classic “boy and his dog” story, in which the “boy” is a dinosaur named Arlo, who’s gotten separated from his family. And the “dog” is a human child named Spot, who can’t talk but is pretty intelligent. They travel together as Arlo tries to get home.
After the film changed creative teams in mid-2013, “we changed the characters quite a bit,” said Ream. “They went from older to younger.” Arlo the dinosaur had been about 17 years old, but now he was 11. His siblings also became younger.
Also, said Ream, “we got rid of a lot of characters that were there before. The story was dramatically simplified.” The earlier version was “really complex,” with too many extraneous characters, Ream added. “There was villages of people, [and] it was really convoluted.”
In particular, said Sohn, the original third act of The Good Dinosaur really showed the problems with the film as a whole. “We had three different storylines going on,” all of which needed to pay off in the end, said Sohn. They weren’t sure if it was a father-son story, or a story about a whole community, or something more personal about Arlo.
“When I was asked to do this, it was to try and refocus it to one [storyline], and honor Bob’s original intent of a dinosaur [movie] with a boy-and-dog concept,” said Sohn. “For me it was just like, ‘Boy, I love what Bob originally pitched, just that boy-and-dog [story], the sincerity in that.”
“Pete just sort of stopped and said, ‘What is it we always liked about the movie? We liked the boy-and-dog concept,’” said Ream. “And so basically, [we ended up] focusing just on that relationship.”
“[Disney exec] John Lasseter would always say, ‘It’s a very simple story. There’s nothing to hide behind. And that got everyone excited,” said Sohn. “You can’t hide behind the plot. You can’t hide behind [extra clutter]. Because the story is so simple, it really focuses on the character.”
“We literally started over,” added Ream. “We changed locations. We went out on this research trip in a different part of the country, and we redid the sets to take place in the Northwest.”
“We work really, really fast,” Ream added. “And honestly, it’s only been recently that we’ve seen all these parts come together.”
Why the heck is this film called The Good Dinosaur, anyway? Is there an evil dinosaur or something? Not exactly.
Sohn told us this is sort of related to the idea of “the good son,” something Arlo struggles with being. In the movie’s first act, Arlo is living on a farm where doesn’t quite feel capable, and he wants to do more for his family. So it gets into his insecurities about being a good kid, and Arlo trying to become his own person.
They also liked playing with the fact that dinosaurs actually existed, and everybody loves dinosaurs—but it was fun to imagine how the history could have unfolded differently. And also, Sohn said he was attracted to the metaphor of a dinosaur as someone who is stuck in the past—because the film’s main character, Arlo, is stuck in the past and unable to move forward after he suffers a loss.
One thing that they added in retooling the film was the death of Arlo’s father, early on in the first act. Ream said they didn’t take this potentially tramatizing step lightly. “We tried so many different versions of this movie,” Ream said, and this was the version that worked best. She recently talked to a colleague who’d lost her husband and has two small children, and she felt that it was important to keep exploring these difficult subjects.
Sohn said he did worry that this might freak out little kids, but he also grew up with films like Bambi and Snow White, which “do tip into these places that are scary and hard.” But with those movies, “you start to understand loss, you start to understand growth. I thought it was [important] for Arlo’s journey, that it was a part of it. It’s a part of life.”
“That’s part of the ‘boy and his dog’ story,” said Ream. “Usually there is some hole that the boy has, and the dog kind of fills that hole.”
And Arlo’s cartoony face is really designed to make you identify with him more, and see the “boy” inside the dinosaur, so you don’t just think of him as an animal, said Sohn. When Arlo gets lost in the wilderness, you need to worry that he’s out of his element and in danger of getting killed, rather than just thinking “You’re an animal. Why don’t you just turn around and eat some leaves?”, according to Sohn.
In a lot of Pixar movies, there’s a “buddy” thing where the two main characters start out not liking each other, and then they slowly learn to understand each other and finally they like each other. But with a “boy and his dog” storyline, the boy doesn’t really like the dog early on—but the dog is just a dog, and doesn’t have such complicated feelings about the boy. “The dog becomes a catalyst in a way, where it becomes to fill something in Arlo, and teach Arlo” about himself, said Sohn.
For Arlo’s journey, “I kept looking into my own life,” Sohn added. “I was a chubby kid, a minority, and [I wondered] what are those things that stopped me from being what I wanted to become? Those fears and those incapabilities really start to fuel the growth” of the character.
With a concept of a world where dinosaurs never went extinct and they’re still around 65 million years later, it would be tempting to go with off-beat concepts like, “Dinosaurs live in the city!”, or “Dinosaurs wearing spacesuits!” said Sohn. “But for me, it started to lose the elements that I felt was really heartfelt about Arlo and Spot’s journey.” So instead, he went with subtler shout-outs, and flipping them—like, the T-Rex cowboys look partly like horses.
They also tried to nod to actual scientific discoveries—like we meet raptors that have feathers.
Even after they retooled Good Dinosaur, Ream said, she always had “days of doubt” about whether such an off-beat concept could work, but she generally felt good about it. “I was always excited about the concept of trying to tell a simple story elegantly,” she explained. “That was something that really appealed to me. I loved the idea that we were going to try to not have as much dialogue, that we were going to create this immersive environment. But you know, it’s risky. [I felt like] if we could pull it off, it’s going to be pretty special.”
Pixar actually had a version of The Good Dinosaur to show people in 2013, added Ream, “and it just wasn’t ready. And so, yeah, John Lasseter and Jim Morris and Ed Catmull and Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich were all like, ‘It needs more time.’ It’s a company decision, and Disney supported us.”
“It’s scary” to take such a radical step back and rework a project completely, added Ream. “We were supposed to come out [with the film] in 2014, and we didn’t. But I’m ultimately really grateful to Disney” for agreeing to give them more time to rework the film completely. “There’s not too many places that would do that,” said Ream. Most studios “ would make us hit the date.” But the top people at Disney and Pixar “want us to make movies that are worthy of people who love Pixar.”