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Truth & lies in Pixar's 'The Good Dinosaur'
by Bryan Harvey

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Truth and lies in Pixar's 'The Good Dinosaur' (2015)

June 4, 2016

A bird in the Venerable Bede's monastery.
Bob Peterson and Peter Sohn’s The Good Dinosaur (2015) is one part lie and another part truth. These ingredients do not make for a particularly unique story. Rather they spin from the DNA of past fiction a tale that is something less than myth and a bit more than history.

The film begins with the lie. In the great frontiers of outer space, one asteroid in a belt collides with another. The image resembles Newton’s cradle and is an example of order falling into chaos, for these galactic marbles do not swing back and forth on an office desk but careen off into space towards a familiar sun and its familiar planet, Earth.

On the surface of this planet, dinosaurs graze in ignorance that they and fate are about to collide. And yet, fate misses them. The asteroid grazes the planet’s blue atmosphere and continues off into the darkness and frontiers of unknown space. Like the flight of the Venerable Bede’s sparrow, the meteorite takes reprieve from the storm’s chaos within the planet’s walls and windows. Of course, later in the film, this planet will prove to be something other than peaceful—storms will roll through its canyons and across its mountains. And, of course, this opening sequence is a lie. That asteroid did strike the Earth, and the dinosaurs did perish. Death is a part of history.

At this stage in writing about The Good Dinosaur, I should state that I began this film full of doubt. I watched it wanting to ridicule it. I hadn’t spoken with anyone who saw it in theaters. I’m not even sure if anyone I know bothered to see it. I also struggled with the premise that the dinosaurs didn’t die. Moreover, they’re lack of extinction didn’t bother me so much as the idea that in their not dying humans would somehow still be alive. In other words, how does one pull out a card in time and not expect the whole house to collapse?

I didn’t understand, or rather didn’t like, the notion that in removing one of the planet’s great apocalypses, the universe could still arrive at the same moment of genesis that shaped Adam and Eve, or you and me. Such a story sounded preposterous. Such a story sounded naïve and egotistical. Such a story suggested that extinction comes for no one—dinosaur, human, or gorilla. And lastly, such a story, in an age of climate change questions and mass extinctions, seems like a story that might excuse a rather dangerous form of self-centered decision-making.

But I was too quick to judge The Good Dinosaur. After all, this film keeps the dinosaurs alive not to avoid discussions about death and extinction, but in order to explore the frontiers between life and death.

After the film’s great revision to the annals of history, The Good Dinosaur roots itself to an agrarian myth that is both distinctly Americana and universally human. The visuals of an Apatosaurus husband and wife tilling the land, seeding the soil, and watering their crops are all stunning in their majestic incongruities. The sights are beautiful, but they also fill the audience with questions. Why are these dinosaurs living Little House on the Prairie? Why in a film without history are we witnessing the conservative family structures of Shane? Then, this couple hatches three sons and raises them to do farm chores, like tend to the chickens. Why would a family of herbivore dinosaurs need chickens? The movie, while visually appealing, is, in the early going, both magical and weird. The words stupidly clever might also come to mind at seeing a dinosaur ironically cower before those anachronistic chickens. Then again, the whole premise is absurdly anachronistic.

Seeing the other in a frontier setting.
In the plot’s early going, three Apatosaurus siblings attempt to impress their parents through hard work around the farm. The goal is to “make one’s mark.” And, in order to leave one’s actual mark, the family members place their muddy footprints on the family’s stone silo. This family ritual is fascinating to ponder. After all, these are living dinosaurs erecting monuments that look exactly like the fossils left by dead dinosaurs. Furthermore, the silo stores what looks like corn. Do dinosaurs eat corn?  In a strange manner, the film appears to have read Michael Pollen’s essay “What’s Eating America” and turned it inside out, especially when Poppa chooses the youngest and most incompetent of his offspring, Arlo, to guard the grain elevator from a varmint, who it turns out is a human child.   

In short, The Good Dinosaur defamiliarizes eons of world history, but does not alter that history’s basic mechanisms. Instead of robbing what the dinosaurs left behind in terms of fossilized fuels, the boy robs the dinosaurs of what they need to survive the next winter, which looms as large as any or all ice ages. The two species are placed at odds within the film because one is dependent on robbing the other for its survival. The film’s cleverness, however, allows for the boy and Arlo to see one another face to face and eye to eye. Poppa’s trap catches the boy in his thievery. And all Arlo must do is club the wild critter over the head, and the family order will persist—another asteroid will be avoided. But Arlo doesn’t go through with the sacrifice. Instead, he sets in motion a sequence of events that threaten the family’s survival, and all so a small, wild boy can live.

Much of the film’s scenes are familiar. Any Disney or Pixar fan will recognize scenes that are similar to The Lion King and Finding Nemo especially. But the film’s performance of genre pastiche also aligns it with Cormac McCarthy’s oeuvre (The Crossing and The Road specifically) and Alejandro Gonzàlez Iñàrritu’s The Revenant (2015). Nods and winks to other Westerns, like John Huston’s Red River (1948), also permeate the story, but the points of similarity and difference with McCarthy and especially Iñàrritu’s film are the most striking.

Man or pterodactyl? 
The storm-riding pterodactyls and pillaging velociraptors gesture towards the brutal cannibalism of The Road’s post-apocalyptic vision. A nihilistic fatalism circulates through these predators, and, in their malice, is the same fearful violence that moves the hand of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) towards killing the son of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCapprio) in The Revenant. But what’s so surprising about these points of comparison is how Pixar’s version of the frontier manages to be more tonally complex than the super serious Iñàrritu film.

As the film’s journey intertwines the lives of Arlo and the boy, who comes to be named Spot, their relationship begins to resemble that of the boy and the man in McCarthy’s The Road. The two clearly love and depend on each other, and all the strangers Arlo encounters view the human boy as a resource. In The Road, the man’s son is often viewed by strangers as either a source of protein (or worse). The man protects the boy, and the boy’s presence gives the man’s life hope and therefore a purpose beyond death. 

The Revenant, however, provides Glass with only one purpose: to kill. And, while the film clearly sides with the father, the film also renders him nearly as sad and lonely and desperate as his son's killer, Fitzgerald. The both of them are pterodactyls circling one another in an apocalyptic storm, and all the love and hope in The Revenant are past tense and beyond saving. Thus, when Glass exhales at the film’s end, there is nothing but empty darkness. Whereas, in The Good Dinosaur, Arlo’s exhale resuscitates Spot, and there is life, to hold and to cherish.

The works of Jack London are another textual comparison for The Good Dinosaur. Spot often howls into the distance out of loneliness. He is, for most of the film, more dog than human. He also teaches Arlo to howl with him. The call is both humanizing and animalistic. Towards the film’s conclusion, another human answers his call. The two eye each other like wolves and sled dogs. The scene is also reminiscent of those raised fists in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). The boy looks with longing towards his own kind, but Arlo delays the White Fang moment, believing the two can both live together on the dinosaur family farm.

"Son, you smell like dinosaur."
Moments later, this parting, which was always in the cards, takes place. Spot crawls into the circle of a human family. The species enters into the happy greeting on all fours, but they exit on the advancement of two-leggedness, walking into the future, into something less imaginative and more like the record of historical fact. Arlo, too, rejoins his mother and siblings. They will continue to farm in the shadow of those snowy mountains, breaking the earth for what’s to come.

The ending of The Good Dinosaur, however, is not quite a happy ending. Extinction and evolution loom in the background. The storms, avalanches, flashfloods, and snowflakes all gesture towards some cataclysm on the horizon. The reunions at the film’s end cannot stave off the inevitable; they are as fleeting as a child’s belief in transcending the historical record. These two species could not live together, and yet they would both be dead if they parted. The journey tells us so.  

Bryan Harvey tweets @LawnChairBoys


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