The Good Dinosaur is an odd film in Pixar’s canon before it even opens. Originally slated to open last year, the film was pushed back and the reigns were passed from Bob Peterson (Up) to Peter Sohn (Partly Cloudy). Although that meant moving the project from one Pixar veteran to another, the film was going in a new direction.
I’ll have more details on the film’s transformation and final product closer to release, but right now I wanted to share with you what I saw when I went to Pixar last week and watched about half an hour from the movie. What they showed my fellow reporters and me was finished footage, but it was also from the middle of the film. We didn’t get the opening scene or anything like that. We were dropped right into the raging river alongside poor little Arlo, the eponymous Good Dinosaur.
In its broad strokes, Good Dinosaur is a “boy and his dog” story set on the frontier in a world where the meteor never wiped out dinosaurs. The twist is that the boy is a dinosaur and the dog is a boy, specifically, six-year-old Spot, who doesn’t talk, but does pant, sit, scratch, etc. Arlo was aged down for Sohn’s taken on the movie. He’s about 11-years-old, and he’s very scared even before the river takes him away from his family and into the wilderness.
That’s right: The Good Dinosaur is yet another “Road Trip” Pixar movie joining the ranks of Toy Story, Up, and Inside Out along with parts of Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo. For Arlo, he needs to follow the river back to his home of Clawtooth Mountain, and Spot is there to help.
The stuff between Arlo and Spot is predictably adorable, although it bucks the traditional “boy and his dog” story by having Arlo wanting to get rid of Spot at first, and then discovering that he needs Spot’s hunting and tracking skills in order to survive. As the two bond, I imagine the film will absolutely tear at the heartstrings, especially the scene we saw where they wordlessly recount what happened to their respective families.
In the footage we also meet a crazy triceratops (who had the best joke in the presentation, which I won’t spoil here) along with a trio of T-Rexes who are “ranchers” whereas Arlo and his family of herbivore apatosauruses are “farmers”. Sohn really took to the notion of framing the story as a western, and while there aren’t sheriffs or saloons, one of the most striking images from the footage I saw is when the T-Rexes are trying to round up their herd, and they don’t run like we expect them to. The upper part of their body remains stiff, and the movement evokes a cowboy on a horse rather than an animal that’s running after other animals.
How Good Dinosaur ultimately interacts with reality is what captured me the most. When it comes to the characters, Pixar isn’t going for realism. You can see from the trailers and images that Arlo and Spot look cartoonish, and that’s intentional. It makes them more expressive, and it gave Pixar more leeway in contracting their position on the frontier. Arlo may be a speck in the forest, but he’s a cute speck.
It’s the frontier where things get crazy. On a technical level, The Good Dinosaur blows away everything else Pixar has ever done. The realism is astounding, and it feels like nature is another character. It’s an antagonist for Arlo (especially early in the footage we saw where he really takes a beating from the elements), and it also highlights how small he is even though he’s an 18-foot-tall dinosaur. While lots of Pixar movies are about world building, Good Dinosaur feels like a recreation that has stripped away people and dwarfed its characters.
Which left me feeling ambivalent about what I saw. I can’t deny that it’s gorgeous, but it’s also oddly desolate. Westerns that highlight the frontier tend to make that frontier feel majestic and overpowering. The Good Dinosaur takes that environment and makes it feel lonely. We’re lost in the woods, but those woods are also beautiful, so we’re at odds with nature that’s both comforting and oppressive. Tonally, that makes for a very bizarre movie that’s desperately clinging to the chemistry between a dinosaur and a young boy.
What’s also notably absent from the footage I saw was humor. The odd triceratops gets some good laughs, but because The Good Dinosaur has so few characters and takes place away from a well-defined society like WALL-E or Monsters, Inc., there’s not a lot of room for jokes. That’s not to say the movie won’t be funny, but I was rarely laughing during what I saw, and while Pixar is under no obligation to fill their movies with jokes, the lack of humor made Good Dinosaur feel like even more of an odd duck in the studio’s filmography.
But perhaps it will fit in better when I see the finished feature. That’s the problem when you only see a chunk of footage out of context from the rest of the picture. There’s a reason we start watching movies at the beginning as opposed to 20 or 30 minutes into the total runtime. So let me be clear: I have no judgment on The Good Dinosaur; only on this brief collection of footage, which may not have had me sold, but certainly had me curious.
The Good Dinosaur opens November 25th. Look for more from my visit to Pixar closer to the film’s release date.