There’s a gentle simplicity to The Good Dinosaur—Disney•Pixar’s gorgeous animated fable that is out on Blu-ray, Digital HD, and Disney Movies Anywhere, now. The movie doesn’t hit you over the head with giant action sequences and a gaggle of characters; instead it really is the story of a boy and his dog—if the boy was a highly evolved dinosaur and the dog was a wild and tenacious human boy. Chatting with Director Peter Sohn, you get the sense that this simplicity was part of what made him really want to tell this story. It’s uncluttered, earnest, and emotional.
For a first-time feature filmmaker (he previously helmed the adorable “Partly Cloudy” and served as the voice of Emile in Ratatouille and Scott “Squishy” Squibbles in Monsters University) Sohn comes across as extremely confident. And you get that impression of him in real life, too. He’s open and honest about the filmmaking process and ideation. During our chat we talked about the film’s world of parallel evolution, its many Western influences, and the decision to make lead dinosaur, Arlo, much smaller than he was originally:
I’m fascinated by the world of this film. Was there ever a time when the dinosaurs were more evolved?
Pixar is all about the “what if” question, like: What if a rat could cook in a kitchen? What if toys come alive when you’re gone? What if the asteroid missed the earth? Yeah, we went down the road of: they could be cooking in a dino diner; they could be in space; they could be in anything. But then there was a drawing of a dinosaur farming that kind of sparked people of the idea of he’s working hard and this character needs to survive out there. All of the American dinosaur bones are found in the northwest—from Montana, to Oregon, to Wyoming, and the Dakotas, so the combination of hardworking farm families and the west really brought us into that frontier world immediately. So, having herbivores become farmers because they would cultivate their own plants, and then carnivores becoming ranchers started to melt into this kind of world. But to be frank, when we first started it became a parody, and there was nothing authentic about it, so we started doing research. We started finding all of these people who were surviving out there on the land. They were either cultivating the cattle, or were ranchers in Oregon, or were farmers in the Midwest. It just kept teaching us how much we want to honor this world, and how hard it is to survive out there. It started dictating the world itself.
When the movie came out, nobody called it a Western. But it clearly riffs on the Western genre.
Oh, totally. It’s absolutely rooted in that history.
What Westerns did you look at for the film?
Shane, The Searchers, Jeremiah Johnson, which some people don’t consider a Western, but I do. So, it was just like, what am I saying about the Western? What are we doing? What is this? How do we make this truthful? Once we tapped into the idea that a family was surviving, it became less about the Western and more about the frontier. But boy, once you meet those T-Rexes, boy does it kick in full-gear.
Obviously the Western angle is reflected in the visual style. I would tell people it was like a Terrence Malick movie.
Yeah, that’s something that we looked at a great deal, from The New World and A Thin Red Line, even, the way [Malick] would shoot some of the jungle. We would call them haiku shots. When Arlo first came out of the river, we would just hold and hold and hold as long as we could, versus fast cutting of, he’s out of the water and moving forward. That’s something John Lasseter said; it’s a simple storyline, but it’s dangerous because there’s nowhere to hide. We were hoping for something simple that could allow us to get that breathing room for the moments when Arlo is out on his own and seeing something dangerous, and then finding a little pocket of beauty here and there.
There is a great mixture of dinosaurs that were actually around at that time period, versus dinosaurs you guys created. Was there a ratio that you figured out?
No, it was really about how to separate thought processes. The dinosaurs would be the ones that would be the reasonable, kind of human characters. Then, because evolution has changed and there were human mammals that were around, then we would say, “okay, there were other mammals around.” But that was more of a division of philosophy. The only human, our “dog” character Spot, would be that cross where you begin as an animal and he slowly becomes something more—that was the division.
Two D23 Expos ago filmmakers showed this test footage where Arlo was huge. In the readjustment of the story you made Arlo smaller. What was the reason behind that?
In the original version of the film, Spot was so tiny, we really wanted to make him feel like a bug. But people had a tough time connecting that these two had a relationship, because Arlo was so large. It was fun, but at the same time we never believed the growth that they could have together. It was really like, I’m best friends with a bee! Bob Peterson, the original director, his first pitch was just a boy and his dog, and so when I took it I said, “I want to honor that as much as I can.” Those are coming-of-age stories, and so I said, “look, let’s make him [Arlo] a boy.” This is one of Pixar’s first movies where both characters are so young, and that was something that started to change everything.
One of my favorite special features on the Blu-ray is about the family you stayed with while doing research. It was so heartwarming.
They had the same impact on me. I had two kids during the production of this movie, and as a parent I found myself very much being a coddling, helicopter parent. Meeting this family out there changed my perspective on parenting. They live with a love that is so pure, and I know how sappy that sounds, but it’s real out there because they have nothing else. They have to survive out there with each other, doing this really tough job, and it’s not easy, what they’re doing. At first it was really just like City Slickers for me, but it became less about that and more about this family. This couple adopted five Haitian kids, and brought them up in a way that was so strong. Those kids were so amazing at how they treated each other and how they treated strangers, and how they respected their family. The dad would just tell them things, like, “I’m going to just tell you this thing once and it’s going to be hard, but once you understand this one aspect, you can learn it on your own.” And he taught us the same way when we were trying to learn horseback riding. He would just say, “you don’t have to ride the horse like this,” or “you don’t have to stay upright.” He would say, “I want you to go over there and bring back that load of cattle over here.” How? And he would just ride off, so you were just forced to do things on your own, which really inspired me and the film and the characters. It was such a cliché in the beginning. And once we met them, we just tossed out all those characters and I said, let’s redo this and think of them as a family, as Arlo’s family, and as someone Arlo can learn from.
Was there any trepidation in exposing yourself and the production of the movie like that? It’s very honest.
Yeah, I just wanted to do the very best I could with this film. I told my crew “I’m going to be as honest as I can with everyone, but there are things that I’m not going to know, there are things that I’m going to mess up, but I can tell you that my ultimate priority is to make the best thing that we can, together.” That was the philosophy I lived through on this thing.
The Good Dinosaur is out on Blu-ray, Digital HD, and Disney Movies Anywhere now.