“That’ll Be The Day, 65 Million Years Ago”
Like most Pixar films, The Good Dinosaur consists of a web of intertextual references. The most surprising of the film’s sources is the film Western. The genre about the 19th century American Southwest is most forcefully engaged in the middle of the new film, when the dinosaur hero, Arlo (Jack McGraw and Raymond Ochoa) and his pet human, Spot (Jack Bright) encounter a family of Tyrannosaurus Rex carnivores who make their living as ranchers of longhorns, prehistoric buffalo, that is. The leader of the cowboys is Butch (voiced by Sam Elliott, the mysterious Westerner whose voice-over begins the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski , and who encounters the Dude at a bar at a bowling alley at the end of the film).
The references in The Good Dinosaur spill out far beyond the Western. Toward the film’s end, as Arlo and Spot flee the pterodactyls, they fall over a waterfall, invoking both the famous ice floe sequence at the end of D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East (D.W. Griffith, 1920) and its silent slapstick comedy parody, the Buster Keaton vehicle, Our Hospitality (1923).
But The Good Dinosaur is no post-modern mishmash. It is an astonishingly precise film that extracts out of its sources a coherent portrait of animated beings’ relationship to the natural world that both threatens and sustains them. For example, at the film’s beginning, hapless Arlo struggles to retrieve berries from a tree. The fruit is too high, so he tries to think up a solution to the problem. He uses a rock to stand on, but instead he falls and ends up with his leg pinned. Spot comes along and frees him, a returned favor from earlier when Arlo freed Spot from a trap set for him by Arlo’s Poppa (Jeffrey Wright), angry over the human raids on his supply of corn, saved to weather the winter.
Arlo’s struggles with the berries invoke Samuel Beckett’s play, Act Without Words I (1957), in which a hapless human struggles to find food and water on the barren stage representing a desert. Adapted into a 2001 Irish film by Karel Reisz, the play features an unnamed man (played in the film by Sean Foley) who struggles and fails to reach a bottle of water dangling on a string, forever just out of his reach. In both Beckett’s play and The Good Dinosaur, sentient beings’ relationship to the landscape is fraught with hardship, seemingly conspired against by their environments, the work of artistic creators or nature hardly seems to matter given the extent of the existential suffering involved.
The Good Dinosaur deploys the full history of cinema to tell its bildungsroman story of a young dinosaur growing into an adult. The film’s opening conceit is that the asteroid which was supposed to wipe out the dinosaurs misses the planet, resulting in the lizards growing into the dominant species on the planet, leaving humans to evolve isolated, and without power to tame the world around them. In the opening sequence, an Apatosaurus family has mastered complex agriculture, tilling the land using their heads as ploughs. A beautiful cut to an overhead shot shows the difficult work required to produce food to weather the winter. The shot, in which an isolated figure works tirelessly amid the unyielding soil, evokes a different D.W. Griffith film, A Corner in Wheat (1909), whose opening and closing shots are the same: an isolated impoverished farmer throws seed across a barren field, the toil completely separate from the film’s plot about rich people manipulating the wheat markets for the purpose of the acquisition of wealth. Such a connection seems preposterous until one recalls that this actual shot from A Corner in Wheat is displayed by the computer in Wall-e (Andrew Stanton, 2008), another Pixar film about the difficulties humans have—in the past, present and future—at taming the wild with agriculture.
But it is to the Western that The Good Dinosaur most thoroughly turns for its images exploring animals and their relationship to the environment. In 1979, Stuart Byron declared that John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) was the “cult movie of the New Hollywood,” given the thematic obsessions with movement toward the lost love object in films ranging from Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), from The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978) to Hardcore (Paul Schrader, 1979). The Good Dinosaur, of course, most obviously comes to this material from The Lion King (Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994), itself a reworking of The Searchers, literally stated in the film’s naming of characters: the evil brother, Scar (Jeremy Irons) who murders the father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), is named after the Comanche chief who leads the opening raid on the homesteading family in Monument Valley at the beginning of Ford’s film.
However, The Lion King, set in Africa, is more interested in the Oedipal dynamics of the story of The Searchers, itself adapted from the quintessential stories of familial murder in Western literature, from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (429 BCE) to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1604). Conversely, The Good Dinosaur is literally about the American Southwest. The pterodactyls chase Arlo and Spot into Monument Valley, where the T-Rexes fight Velociraptors, no longer the diabolical scavengers from Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993), but now cattle rustlers from Shane (George Stevens, 1953). Indeed, after Butch the T-Rex tells us about his herd of longhorn, the image given to us defies our expectations. These are not the beef cattle of Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948), but prehistoric buffalo.
This encounter with the herd reminds us of an important scene in The Searchers, when the demonic Indian hunter Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) insanely murders buffalo with his rifle. His companion, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) cries that these destructive actions make no sense. Ethan screams in response that each dead buffalo represents more hungry Indian bellies over the long winter. Martin must knock the gun out of the madman’s hands to stop the slaughter.
From a genre studies point of view, the errant asteroid at the beginning of The Good Dinosaur transforms far more than the speciation of the planet’s animals. The very fabric of the history of violence has been redeemed. Butch, neither the murderous T-Rex from Jurassic Park nor the lunatic Westerner from The Searchers, is now a peace-loving rancher who befriends talking Apatosaurs and human children alike. One can dismiss this as pure childish wish fulfillment, but the sophisticated reconstruction of film history suggests something different.
By throwing the asteroid off course, Peter Sohn beautifully envisions a Utopian world where the very relationship between living beings and the landscape works fundamentally differently. In a contemporary world in which each one-degree rise in the planet’s temperature augurs a higher chance of irreversible climate destabilization, Sohn’s radical genre project seems desperately apropos. An inversion of Wall-e, in which the human-fueled decimation of the planet is an event in the distant past, The Good Dinosaur lines up a series of films to illuminate the different representational possibilities of a world in which humans never had the chance to ruin the future of all plants and animals.
Byron, Stuart. “The Searchers: Cult Movie of the New Hollywood.” New York. 12.10. [March 5, 1979]. 45-48.