“At Pixar, we ask a lot of ‘what ifs,’” the studio’s Pete Sohn told a crowd of cartoon devotees (a mix of animation students, professionals and fans) at France’s Annecy Intl. Animated Film Festival: “What if the toys come to life when we leave the room? What if the monsters really were real inside the closet? What if a rat became a world-famous French chef?”
So far, those hypotheticals have yielded “Toy Story,” “Monsters Inc.” and “Ratatouille,” respectively, but according to Sohn, “With (‘The Good Dinosaur’), we would ask the biggest ‘what if’ of all.” With that, he cued a clip in which a gigantic asteroid misses the Earth, narrowly averting a mass extinction event: What if instead of being wiped off the Earth, dinosaurs had continued to evolve?
That’s the hypothetical that audiences will see answered when the film opens later this year, just in time for Thanksgiving, on Nov. 25. But internally, Pixar was asking another question: What if you scrap the original director of your upcoming dino movie and plug someone new in his place? In this case, Peter Sohn replaced “Up’s” Bob Peterson — the similarity between their names providing an added irony to the swap.
Of course, “The Good Dinosaur” is hardly the first Pixar movie to get a massive overhaul in production (“Toy Story 2,” “Ratatouille” and “Brave” were all repair jobs of some sort, losing their original directors along the way), but it could be the riskiest. Sohn’s only previous helming credit was 2009’s “Partly Cloudy” short, and though the Korean-American animator is a favorite among his Pixar peers, inspiring the character of Asian boy scout Russell in “Up,” this project put an enormous responsibility in his relatively untested hands.
Naturally, Pixar is trying to offset that gamble with notes and ideas from the studio’s “brain trust” (the top-level feedback committee made up of John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, etc.), unveiling hints of the new direction the film has taken at a press conference last month at Cannes and now for an even bigger audience at Annecy.
In this new-and-improved version of “The Good Dinosaur,” instead of being wiped off the face of the Earth, dinosaurs have survived. The magnificent creatures have learned to farm, co-existing with humans, who have no language and still run on all fours. That premise inspires an inverted “boy and his dog” story, where the main character is an orphaned Apatosaurus named Arlo (yes, here’s another Disney film in which a parent dies at the outset), and his best friend is a boy named Spot who tags along like his trusty pet.
Earlier this week, Pixar revealed an all-new voice cast for the film, led by Raymond Ochoa (a child actor with a long list of credits) as Arlo, and featuring Jack Bright (from “Monsters University”) as the wordless Spot, illustrating just how drastic the changes to the original concept have been. Still, judging by what Sohn presented at Annecy, the film delivers on a couple different levels.
First, visually, Sohn and his team have pushed the Pixar tools as far as possible toward rendering photorealistic environments, against which their cartoonishly stylized main characters will perform. Fifteen years after Disney’s live-action/CG hybrid “Dinosaur,” wherein plausible-looking virtual dinosaurs interacted against a series of practical background plates, Pixar is flipping the equation. But it’s an odd choice as well: When the driving question asks “what if dinosaurs continued to evolve?” shouldn’t the movie’s dinos look more sophisticated than the “Jurassic World” variety, rather than cute and cartoony, with simplified features, dopey expressions and big, Aardman-style teeth?
Second, in terms of emotion, Sohn may have cracked the project. Growing up with a mother who didn’t speak English, Sohn recalls a childhood screening of Disney’s classic “Dumbo,” in which the scene between the baby elephant and his mother (who extends her trunk to embrace little Dumbo from behind bars) made Sohn’s own mother cry. Normally, Sohn would have to translate the movie, but with “”Dumbo,” he said, “I remember my mom slowly but surely feeling this moment. It really got her. It hit me so hard. I didn’t have to explain anything to her. She saw it, and it was told visually so well. It really inspired me.”
Instead of showing a multitude of clips at Annecy, Sohn focused on a key scene from “The Good Dinosaur” in which he aimed to achieve a comparable emotional moment to the one in “Dumbo”: Arlo and Spot bond over the discovery that both have lost parents. Lying side-by-side in the sand, unable to understand one another’s words, they use broken sticks to communicate their feeling toward their missing parents, arranging the wooden figures to represent their families, then sadly knocking over those who have died. It’s a beautifully animated bonding scene, which ends with the two characters howling mournfully at the sky.
That personal approach was echoed in Annecy’s world-premiere screening (not counting the press-only glimpse given at Cannes) of the new Pixar short film “Sanjay’s Super Team,” directed by Sanjay Patel, about an Indian kid growing up in the States who daydreams about his favorite superhero action figures coming to life — only to discover a surprising twist about the Hindu gods his father worships.