The Good Dinosaur is exquisitely animated with nature foremost.
The Good Dinosaur is exquisitely animated with nature foremost. Contributed

The Good Dinosaur: Lost in a dangerous wilderness

THE archetypal story of a boy and his trusty dog gets turned on its head in the new family movie The Good Dinosaur.

The film, Pixar's second release of the year, follows young Apatosaurus Arlo as he is forced to face his fears out in the wilderness of America's northwest after being separated from his family.

Nature is front and centre in the film, exquisitely animated in some of Pixar's most realistic imagery to date.

"The painterly realism of the backgrounds was very much inspired by what we learned out there (in Wyoming, Montana and Oregon)," director Peter Sohn tells Weekend.

"I'm from New York City, and everywhere we would go was gorgeous and stunning but life-threatening at the same time... there was this duality of beauty and danger.

"I was excited about trying to make nature something emotional and subtly alive, almost a character. Nature can be beautiful and dangerous and merciful and whimsical and miraculous at the same time, and we pushed for that look."

The Good Dinosaur is set in an alternative world, where dinosaurs flourished and evolved into highly social and intelligent animals. Cavemen, instead, are the feral "critters" who regularly raid the corn stores of Arlo's family farm.

The reptilian and human characters stand in stark contrast to their picturesque surroundings thanks to a more cartoon-like treatment.

Peter says he didn't want to go with a "Jurassic Park" style of design for his central characters. "We really wanted to find the humanity in them, especially Arlo," he says.

"How do you make that animal feel like a human boy when he's lost and thrust into the wilderness?

"We really pushed the design of Arlo so you see that he's a young teenager still growing. He's got knobbly knees and big eyes and you immediately feel he's a bit of a runt."

Working for Pixar is a dream come true for many filmmakers, but Peter's directorial debut with the animation studio wasn't as straightforward as he imagined.

He started with the Oscar-winning company as an animator and story artist on films such as Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Brave.

He originally signed on to The Good Dinosaur in 2009 to help creator and original director Bob Peterson develop the story. But four years later Peter took over and the film went through a dramatic rewrite and recasting.

"A lot of these films go through these really tough changes because trying to tell an original story is really hard," he says.

"On this one it was definitely my first time doing something like this. It was emotional, and you learn a lot about yourself.

"The original pitch of this thing Bob gave was a boy and dog story but flipping it where the boy is a dinosaur and the dog is a human boy.

"The first thing I wanted to do when I took over was to honour the original pitch and just keep to that archetypal story."

The film has been described as Pixar's first Western, but that's not quite how Peter sees it. "The simple idea of survival on the frontier was a sincere touchstone for us," he says. "When you're working with dinosaurs who are farmers living out on the prairie on their own, what if there was a kid who just wasn't cutting it? How does a kid grow up in that world?

"I'd call it a frontier world for sure."

The father of two also has a cameo as the voice of Forrest Woodbush (aka The Pet Collector), a Styracosaurus who has various animals perched on his horns. He is one of the first dinosaurs Arlo encounters after becoming lost and provides one of the film's most bizarrely funny moments.

"We wanted every character Arlo would meet to teach him something about his journey through fear," Peter says.

"The Pet Collector represents what Arlo would turn out to be like if he did get stuck out there for decades. Arlo at the end of the line, terrified of everything and a little crazy."

The five-year rollercoaster of the film's production has all been worth it for Peter, who now gets to share it with the two children he and his wife had during that time.

"I'm so proud after finishing this film," he says.

"What's at the heart of this place (Pixar) is the executives are all directors and filmmakers. They all know the journey, so during those moments when you have a tough time the gang is like 'we've been there before, it's okay, keep going'."

In that sense, he and Arlo have gone on similar journeys and come out the other side stronger for it.

The Good Dinosaur opens nationally today.

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