The script was wrong, the voices were wrong and the story was wrong, but Pixar never lost faith in their new movie

A little under two years ago, Pixar Animation Studios started fighting to save their Dinosaur from extinction. The studio’s 15th feature, The Good Dinosaur, had been in production for four years, but despite the best efforts of its hundred-strong crew, progress had ground to a halt.

The central concept – what if the asteroid that brought about the dinosaurs’ extinction on Earth had missed? – was solid. But the storyline, in which a young Apatosaurus called Arlo strikes up an unlikely friendship with a feral homo sapiens called Spot, had become increasingly tangled.

Extraneous characters and story twists and turns had crept in during the development process, and the film was stretching in too many directions at once, tying its 30-foot necks in knots. So John Lasseter, the studio’s chief creative officer, took the drastic step of putting the film on pause – and, after a period of frenzied rewriting and brainstorming, replacing its original director, the Pixar veteran Bob Peterson, with his then-35-year-old deputy Peter Sohn.

At that stage Sohn had only one directing credit to his name: the short film Partly Cloudy, that played in cinemas in 2009 before Pixar’s Up. (He also served as visual inspiration for the character of Russell, Up’s eight-year-old wilderness scout: though he might not be the best-known director at Pixar, he’s certainly the most recognisable.)

Spot the difference: Pixar director Peter Sohn was the visual inspiration for Russell in 'Up' Credit: Disney/Pixar

Around 19 months later, Sohn yesterday presented the first footage from The Good Dinosaur at the International Animation Film Festival in Annecy, in the south of France. Beforehand, he stopped in London to offer journalists a preview. Not much was known about the film’s original plot, apart from Lasseter’s wry description of it as a “boy-and-his-dog story with the roles reversed”. 

But since Sohn’s promotion, the story seems to have evolved from an Old Yeller- or Big Red-like sun-bathed prairie escapade to a more plaintive lost child’s odyssey, in the style of the great, heart-wrenching Forties Disney animations Dumbo and Bambi. Now, Arlo would meet Spot after being swept down-river, far from his family and the grassy lowlands of their home. And so, Sohn and his team swept away many the film’s secondary characters, in order to refocus on its central human-dinosaur relationship – the communication in which, incidentally, had to be mostly non-verbal, as the humans in the world of The Good Dinosaur had yet to achieve the power of speech. 

All of this had to be pulled off in just over a year, along with re-casting the new roles and re-recording the new script. Though Pixar has a track record of taking troubled films back into development – both Toy Story sequels had the same treatment, as well as their 2012 princess fable Brave – this is the first time the studio has almost entirely replaced a film’s cast after having recorded its dialogue, and characters voiced by John Lithgow, Judy Greer, Neil Patrick Harris and Bill Hader were all dropped. Only Frances McDormand remained as the voice of Arlo’s mother: the new cast included young actors Raymond Ochoa and Jack Bright as the voices of Arlo and Spot, Jeffrey Wright replacing Lithgow as Arlo’s father, and Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin and Steve Zahn as new dinosaur characters.

All of this high drama meant The Good Dinosaur was overtaken by the studio’s next film, the ingenious coming-of-age story Inside Out, which arrives in UK cinemas in July after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last month. For cinema-goers, this means the heretofore-unprecedented thrill of two new Pixar titles in the space of six months: The Good Dinosaur is now locked in for a pre-Christmas release. The studio itself, however, has been in overdrive to get the damn thing finished. No wonder Sohn looks exhausted.

Exhausted but quietly confident, that is: with the news that Jurassic World has just taken half a billion dollars worldwide on its opening weekend, this is a good time to be in the dinosaur-movie business. For his brief London stopover, he’s in a colourful suite at the Soho Hotel, drinking a rejuvenating smoothie that contains “bananas and, umm, energy”, according to the waiter who brings it.

As the child of first-generation Korean immigrants who ran a grocer’s shop in New York City, Sohn says he had the value of hard work instilled in him from an early age, but even so, the past year and a half has been gruelling. 

“The issue was that some of the foundational elements of the story were creating problems that just could not be fixed,” he says. “So you have to break them, and in breaking them there are a lot of sacrifices that you have to make. We had got to the point where The Good Dinosaur wanted to be two or three different kinds of films in one, and so we had to try to hone back in on the heart of it.”

Artwork from Pixar's 'The Good Dinosaur' Credit: Disney/Pixar

That heart was very much in evidence in a two-minute sequence that Sohn screened from the middle of the film, in which Arlo and Spot, sitting on the bank of a mighty river one night, draw symbols in the sand to describe how each one misses their families in this enormous, edgeless world. The scene has a piercing emotional directness that’s all the more acute for its essential wordlessness. Even though Arlo talks, and Spot growls and snuffles, the meaning of what they’re saying is carried entirely by their gestures and looks, and the warm lights of the fireflies that blink in the darkness.

Sohn reminisced about going with his mother to the Chase Manhattan Bank as a child to deposit the weekly earnings from the family’s shop: she would hold back enough for two cinema tickets, and afterwards, on the way home, they would see a film together. Because his mother spoke only limited English, often Sohn had to whisper his own interpretation of the dialogue and plot points in her ear, in Korean. But during some films – and they were normally animations – he remembers both of them laughing, and occasionally shedding a tear, in unison, with no translation required.

That type of nonverbal storytelling is classic Disney, and exactly what Sohn wanted to bring to The Good Dinosaur after being handed the film’s reins: “that idea that two people who don’t speak the same language can still connect ended up driving the entire, rewritten movie,” he says.

Artwork from Pixar's 'The Good Dinosaur' Credit: Disney/Pixar

But Sohn was also able to weave in some obscurer nods towards Disney’s earlier work, not least of all a pack of preening velociraptors – complete with paleontologically accurate feathers, coiffed like the hairstyles of Premier League footballers – which instantly bring to mind the quartet of mop-topped, Liverpudlian vultures in The Jungle Book.

What immediately sets The Good Dinosaur apart from Pixar’s previous work – and, in fact, any animated film yet made – is the meticulous photorealism of its backdrops, which have been rendered in such dizzying detail that Sohn had to explain a shot of raindrops delicately drizzling down the leaves of a trailing plant wasn’t live-action footage, but a clip from the film. 

The dinosaurs themselves all look ineffably Pixar-ish – imagine Rex from Toy Story with a million-or-so more points of physical articulation – but the landscapes look like images from an Ansel Adams coffee-table book, with wide, snaking rivers, plains of silvery grass, and claw-like mountains rising up to rake at crowd-strewn skies.

Finding grandeur and threat in the world of The Good Dinosaur was essential for Sohn, particularly as, from what we know about the film so far, it doesn’t seem to have a conventional villain. Sohn talked about making research trips to the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming – Apatosaurus’s old stomping ground – and seeing canyons carved out by centuries of rock-falls and rushing water. “There was a great beauty to the landscape, but also a great danger,” he says. “And I wanted to capture that majesty in the film, because that’s what we go to the cinema for.” 

Sohn reveals that he cut out a row of tiny heads from black paper and stuck them along the bottom of his monitor at Pixar, like a little cinema audience in silhouette, so that when he was looking at frames from the film at his desk, the sheer scale of the finished picture would never slip from his mind. It’s only fitting that the studio’s biggest gamble to date should feel this enormous.

'The Good Dinosaur’ will open in UK cinemas on Friday November 27