If you haven’t watched Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, and plan to, you may not want to read this.
I have given this a lot of thought since I took my son to see The Good Dinosaur on Black Friday, and since it keeps swirling back to me the way a boomerang is supposed to I decided to share it.
First you must understand: I am a believer in the movie making magic that Pixar Entertainment wields. I pretty much go in to their movies with the expectation to be floored, wowed, torn into tiny pieces of human emotion. Over the years, I think I’ve developed an addiction to their specific brand of story. I gear up for the feels and I have rarely been let down.
I am also a writer that has endured — will always have to endure — high-level critique of my work. I know how hard it is to take that in, and even more, I understand how easy it is to get lost on the story’s journey, veering, spiraling, floundering until you no longer even recognize the work you’ve ended up with. I know how hard it is to fix it once you get to that soul-crushing crossroad.
That said, I have a pretty huge note at the story level of The Good Dinosaur, and rather than only tell you what I think isn’t working, I am going to offer what I would do to fix it.
Here is the movie description:
Luckily for young Arlo, his parents (Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand) and his two siblings, the mighty dinosaurs were not wiped out 65 million years ago. When a rainstorm washes poor Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) downriver, he ends up bruised, battered and miles away from home. Good fortune shines on the frightened dino when he meets Spot (Jack Bright), a Neanderthal boy who offers his help and friendship. Together, the unlikely duo embark on an epic adventure to reunite Arlo with his beloved family.
It would take too long to give you a play-by-play of the entire plot, so what I am going to do instead is focus on the key points I feel like needed to be revised.
Concept and Set-up:
What if dinosaurs didn’t die out but lived on? The movie offers a society (similar to the world in CARS) run by dinosaurs. They have evolved to the point of creating their own jobs for themselves, finding ways to sustain their food supply, forming family units. They are essentially humans in dinosaur clothes.
I do think this concept works for an animated feature. Children can get into it, like they did CARS, and adults can pick out the finer nuances of the idea. (An example: The T-Rex cattle wranglers, meat eaters, that look like they are riding horses because of their tiny little arms. Pretty fabulous!)
But that is not the only BIG IDEA at play in this story. We also have parallels drawn between the world of Good Dinosaur and the Range, like Home, Home on the, as well as the classic protagonist spirit journey arc.
THEN we have the protagonist’s inability to fit in with his family because he’s timid and fearful.
Thanks to the protagonist’s fear, his father ends up dead.
But it’s not until the little Caveboy comes back a second time, that the inciting incident happens. Arlo (the protagonist) finally shows some story gumption when he confronts the Caveboy and blames him for his father’s death, chasing the boy away from the safety of his home and getting swept off by the river.
It is, to me, a case of too much, too fast. It gets muddled on delivery.
The description of the movie leaves out a huge chunk of this information and instead focuses — as it should — on Arlo’s journey. The issue with the setup is figuring out a way to make Arlo’s stakes high enough so that he needs to take this spirit journey, and endearing enough that we need to follow him on it.
I am suggesting two major changes:
- Eliminate his brother
- Leave his father alive.
Begin with the world set up: Dinosaurs don’t die.
Go to the small picture: a single dinosaur family surviving.
Introduce Arlo — scrawny, fearful, not really built for field labor, and is subtly seen as a disappointment by his father. On farms, boys usually take over once their father’s can’t run it anymore, but that isn’t Arlo’s strong suit. To give it a feminist edge, hint that his sister is better suited for this work and also wants it more than he does. Build the relationship with his sister up, show that Arlo needs to face his fear of letting his father down, and show how that manifests in him being fearful in other situations.
Introduce the Critters eating their food supply, and Arlo’s inability to kill the Caveboy. Have a scene here where Arlo says something awful to his father about farm life. Have his father call him a coward. And then, to drive it home, have his father go searching for the Caveboy to finish Arlo’s job and get injured. Arlo blames himself, and when he sees the Caveboy again, he CHOOSES to catch him to prove he’s not a coward. This is of course the wrong motive, which is important to show his growth through the story.
He falls into the river, goes unconscious and finds himself far from home with no survival skills and no idea how to get home.
This gives Arlo’s character real tension and tightens the plot, we don’t waste all that time on the father’s death, and we don’t meander with the brother that adds nothing to the plot. Arlo needs to be active, and he needs to be searching for something more. He’s a kid, of course he wants to get back home, he’s worried he’ll be in trouble because they’ll think he ran away, and probably secretly worried they will be fine without him, but Arlo is on this journey because of fear, and I think, because he needs to find out who he is. This is a coming of age tale, after all.
Things this changes:
- Needing to get home to help with the harvest. In the movie as it is now, Arlo arrives home at the end when they have already finished bringing in the harvest, negating this motive. They are exhausted and for all they know he abandoned them. By eliminating the father’s death, and making the sister more active, this would no longer need to be a driving force for Arlo, leaving him to have deeper goals and motives.
- The conflict he has over his father’s death. This is not The Lion King, guys, and for me, the father’s death had little emotional resonance. He spends the whole time either watching his son fail, or telling him to face his fear. Telling is the key word. With all that telling, I lost interest. I also feel like this is something I have seen too many times, and in this case it didn’t add to the movie.
- The connection between Spot (Caveboy) and Arlo over the loss of a parent. I think this could still be established. Arlo is a lost child, and so is Spot. All they have now is each other.
There is a weird Styracosaurus introduced early in the second act that could have served as a Shaman or Spirit Guide. Later, the father is used as a sort of Spirit Guide. Streamline this, pick one Shaman character and have that character recur at least three times in the story. Again, this is about utilizing the concept and worldbuilding. When you are trying to create an imaginary world, some things need to be told and retold to make the world feel fully fleshed out.
More characters on the Range-
Another way to utilize your world building is by using common and recognizable archetypal characters to fill out the world and drive theme home. Arlo needed to experience more for this to be a true spirit journey. His experiences are not varied enough, and his encounters to not provide enough of an argument.
The script would have to be revised throughout based on these changes, with an emphasis on the spirit journey concept and worldbuilding. By cutting unnecessary plot points, and getting the tension off a death and onto the struggle of the main character, the story will already feel less passive and more focused.
Critique is a compliment, it means I cared about this story. It is easier to stand on the outside of something and see the problems and even the solutions, than it is to be inside trying to solve them in real time. This is one opinion of a way to improve a story, and I don’t claim to be an expert on any of this.
Also, Pixar, if you are interested in hiring me, my contact info is in my bio. I have a screenplay sample, and I’m available immediately.