Ahead of the release of Lightyear, The Ringer is hosting Pixar Week—a celebration of the toys, rats, clown fish, and more that helped define one of the greatest studios of the 21st century. At the heart of the occasion is the Best Pixar Character Bracket, a cutthroat tournament to determine the most iconic figure of them all. Check back throughout the week to vote for your favorite characters and read a selection of stories that spotlight some of Pixar’s finest moments. To infinity … and beyond!
“Pixar is doing dinosaurs!”
It’s 2013, early August, and Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter is bursting with enthusiasm inside the Anaheim Convention Center. On stage in front of the biennial D23 crowd, he has summoned codirector Peter Sohn and producer Denise Ream to join in his ebullience and share the latest updates from the animation studio’s upcoming summer blockbuster, The Good Dinosaur. “In our film, the dinosaurs are farmers,” Sohn says excitedly, eventually introducing a few members of the voice cast—Bill Hader, Judy Greer, and Lucas Neff—and revealing a special first look at the movie’s photorealistic footage.
The audience ate up the prehistoric presentation—except for Jim Hill, who noticed a glaring absence. Over the previous four years, the Disney historian had chronicled the movie’s development led by Pixar veteran Bob Peterson, who had envisioned a story about an agrarian society of dinosaurs centered around Arlo, a 70-foot-tall apatosaurus, and a small human boy named Spot. But less than a year before the movie’s scheduled 2014 release, Peterson wasn’t on stage to promote his directorial debut. “I have to admit, it was a little strange,” Hill says. “When I asked a Disney press representative, they said, ‘Oh, Bob couldn’t be here.’ It was one of those vague, nonanswer answers.”
Two weeks later, the Los Angeles Times reported that Peterson had been fired earlier that summer, marking the fourth time that the studio had changed directors in the middle of a production. Pixar had handed Sohn the reins to overhaul the script and a month after D23, the studio officially delayed the project’s release to Thanksgiving 2015. “All directors get really deep in their films,” Pixar president Ed Catmull told the Los Angeles Times about the decision. “Sometimes you just need a different perspective to get the idea out. Sometimes directors ... are so deeply embedded in their ideas it actually takes someone else to finish it up.”
On a crunched timeline, Sohn simplified the story, eliminated numerous characters (and voice actors), and shrunk Arlo into a kid-sized dinosaur, turning the movie into an inverted “boy and his dog” tale. The Good Dinosaur hit its Thanksgiving weekend release date, but despite the promise of its popular concept and dazzling visuals, it failed to connect with audiences. Only four months after the critical and commercial success of Inside Out, the movie’s derivative story and kid’s perspective offered little for adults, and its $332 million global box office haul, though considerable, marked the studio’s weakest theatrical debut in its then-20-year history. “There was nothing in it that was novel,” film critic Christopher Orr says. “It kind of represented a turning point.”
After managing two decades without a blemish, Pixar’s creative juggernaut finally had a misstep. In the years that directly followed, the studio leaned into its bankable IP to produce a handful of sequels, shrouding The Good Dinosaur in forgettable obscurity. With few accolades and hardly any critical reevaluation, it has remained an aberration in the studio’s canon, the product of a convoluted development period and poorly planned release, and an unlikely factor in instigating Pixar’s new era of leadership. “Nobody is bulletproof,” box office analyst Jeff Bock says. “Sometimes you try new things and it doesn’t work. That’s just part of the Hollywood business.”
When Peterson initially pitched The Good Dinosaur to Pixar, he began with the company’s signature “what-if” thought-starter: What if the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago missed Earth? Inspired by the animatronic dinosaurs of the 1964 World’s Fair and fascinated by the Amish communities from his Ohio hometown, Peterson was eager to explore a new timeline by merging two disparate worlds. Though the left-field idea didn’t have a third act, executives were ready to give Up’s codirector and writer his first real shot to helm a project. “There’s only one thing that little boys want more than cars and that’s dinosaurs,” Hill says. “That was the whole notion of green-lighting this movie.”
In the same way that Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and Cars introduced numerous characters and consumer products, The Good Dinosaur promised a range of colorful Jurassic species to promote and sell. In its earliest stage, Peterson’s script began with five different kinds of dinosaurs living harmoniously on a farm, each speaking with Pennsylvania Dutch accents and using their specific characteristics like modern agricultural equipment. The triceratops would use its horns to plow the fields, while the stegosaurus would use its spikes to mow the grass and weeds, old-school methods that Sohn suggested toyed with “what dinosaurs represent today—something anachronistic or resistant to change.”
As Peterson’s original story unfolds, teenager Arlo aspires to be more than an insect-killer protecting his family’s crops. Soon, he meets Spot, a little boy deceptively dressed as a bug, and the two begin an adventure together through the wilderness. “There were a lot of intriguing story ideas and character concepts like this,” Hill wrote for The Huffington Post. “The only problem was that all of these elements never coalesced into a single emotionally satisfying/overall entertaining storyline.” After four years of development with little narrative progress, producer John Walker left the project to join Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, and the studio brought in Ream to oversee massive changes. “It had become complicated,” Lasseter told Wired. “This happens a lot. You drown in complicated thoughts and you don’t have time for personality and character and emotion.”
To change the movie’s trajectory, Pixar promoted Sohn, who had been with the company for 15 years and directed the 2009 short Partly Cloudy, as director. But that reshuffling would have consequences that stretched far beyond The Good Dinosaur. Ultimately, the project’s 18-month delay meant that 2014 would be the first year since 2005 without a Pixar movie, a decision that bumped Finding Dory to 2016 and caused the company to lay off 50 employees. “You’re signaling to people inside and outside the company that we will do what it takes to make sure the films are very good. That’s what makes this place different,” Catmull told Wired. As Lasseter also noted, “You can fall into the trap of not wanting to hurt somebody’s feelings, [but] getting the story right is the most important thing.”
Until that point, trusting its own process had played an almost mythic role in Pixar’s history. Not long after the success of Toy Story, Disney (then a distributor for the animation studio) pushed for a direct-to-video sequel. But Pixar’s leadership rejected the bid, instead turning around a theatrical release that exceeded the quality of the original, a moment that Catmull described in his 2014 book Creativity, Inc. as “the crucible in which Pixar’s true identity was forged.” In the decade after Disney purchased Pixar for $7.4 billion in 2006, it shuffled directors on 2007’s Ratatouille, 2011’s Cars 2, and 2012’s Brave. Those gambles worked—each movie went on to gross more than $500 million at the global box office and, with the exception of Cars 2, received strong critical praise.
Still, The Good Dinosaur brought its own unique challenges. Working closely with Ream, Sohn felt he needed to eliminate Peterson’s agrarian society and make Arlo younger to enhance the movie’s coming-of-age bones. “It was a challenge in the beginning,” Sohn told Den of Geek. “We had a more adult Arlo when we first began—he had really textured skin; he had really structural shapes to him. And we lost that sense of youth to him. I definitely wanted to find that boy quality.” Sohn was more interested in making The Good Dinosaur a neo-Western survival flick in which nature is the primary antagonist. (In the revised script, Arlo’s father dies in a rainstorm, leaving Arlo lost in the wilderness with Spot.) As a result, Arlo would deal “with themes that are a little darker than usual,” Sohn told The Hollywood Reporter. “That only helps depict what a kid goes through when they’re maturing.”
The narrative changes meant even more restructuring and negotiations. By focusing the movie on just one apatosaurus family and cutting down Arlo’s siblings from three to two, Sohn “created a ripple action for all the characters Arlo meets,” he said. He and Ream went on to nix all but Frances McDormand from their original voice cast, replacing John Lithgow with Jeffrey Wright and substituting younger voices in Raymond Ochoa and Jack Bright for Neil Patrick Harris, Hader, Greer, and Neff. “You have to try things that, even though they may not work, will lead you to another direction,” Sohn explained to The Independent. “Learning about who those [replaced] characters were helped me to define other ways to go.”
Tony Bancroft could empathize with Sohn and Ream’s decisions. As the codirector of Mulan, he remembers getting into large disagreements with his partner, Barry Cook, over story beats and character arcs that could get “messy.” “Disney has never had a development school or any lessons in how to become better directors,” Bancroft says. “Even though I felt like we had a fairly firm story up front to go off, there were constant changes.” When Bancroft worked as a character artist the following year for 2000’s The Emperor’s New Groove, he witnessed a notoriously roller-coaster production overhaul. After Disney swapped directors midstream, Bancroft had just a couple weeks to conceive and animate scenes for the newly added character Kronk, voiced by Patrick Warburton. “There was no going back and forth on everything—things had to get approved quickly,” Bancroft says. “It was liberating in some ways as an animator, and some things were scary about that, too.”
Unlike The Emperor’s New Groove, whose story went “through its awkward teenage years” without the internet exposing its missteps, The Good Dinosaur had a public perception problem—entertainment sites covered and amplified each setback, and its name became synonymous with company-wide layoffs. So, in the months leading up to its release, Pixar extended invitations to a variety of media outlets to visit its Emeryville campus, speak with Sohn and the filmmaking team, and learn about its rocky path to recovery. Mostly that meant Pixar playing up the movie’s photorealistic efforts, which began with trips to Grand Teton National Park and required heavier lifts for the animation department in order to render all the movie’s landscapes in three dimensions. “That feeling of vastness in the film, that’s not something we had done before, nor is it very easy to do on a computer,” cinematographer Sharon Calahan told Wired, remembering later that Lasseter told her he wanted the backgrounds “looking better than real.”
The acute attention to detail—including breakthroughs in volumetric clouds—helped Pixar pave over the movie’s detoured route to theaters, capping a nearly two-year sprint. Bancroft says that in his 30 years of animation “there’s never been one production that I’ve worked on that has gone smoothly as planned,” but the challenge for Pixar went far beyond merely getting a viable product into theaters. In many ways, the success of The Good Dinosaur would reaffirm the company’s own ethos and history of adaptation.
“For Pixar, it was a dramatic event,” Jim Morris, the studio’s general manager, told the Los Angeles Times. “It was tough on the company. Most studios would have said, ‘The movie’s fine. It’s not bad.’ And it wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t great.”
About midway through The Good Dinosaur, Arlo and Spot share their first bonding moment. Remembering a trick his father taught him, the young apatosaurus glides his tail over the grass to expose a luminescent group of lightning bugs, and the pair chases them to a sandy shore. There, Arlo laments the separation of his family and his father’s passing, which he interprets with a group of sticks, each representing a sibling and parent. Spot eventually reciprocates with his own twigs, silently insinuating that he’s lost his family members, too. They then begin to howl at the moon, grieving together as they long for home.
It’s a thoughtful, delicate little moment, punctuated by the river’s moonlit ripples and the yellow glow of the insects. But it’s an outlier in a movie that otherwise struggles to capture the humor, pathos, and originality that Pixar had cultivated in each of its movies to that point. Though critics appreciated the movie’s visual splendor, they found the plot points surrounding Arlo’s father hewed too close to The Lion King, and the bare-boned hero’s journey lacked the suspense and excitement of a more adult road-trip movie. “Pixar’s brand to that point was to give you a relatively straightforward adventure cartoon for the kids, but also to build an entire ideological infrastructure underneath the film that will appeal to grown-ups,” Orr says. “The thing about The Good Dinosaur is it didn’t have that component there at all.”
“What kills this movie is that it’s just a bunch of things running around in the woods,” says Drew Taylor, a culture reporter for The Wrap. Privy to the movie’s development and release as a former Disney employee in 2015, Taylor believes that erasing Peterson’s agrarian dinosaur society evaporated some of the Pixar magic that’s visible in the motley collection of Toy Story or Monsters, Inc. communities, moving it into more predictable territory. “The movie is beautiful, for sure,” Taylor says. “I just think that losing that dinosaur society was a real hindrance to it.”
Audiences agreed. In its first three days, The Good Dinosaur brought in $16 million and earned an additional $39 million domestically throughout the entire holiday weekend, finishing well behind The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part 2 and just above Creed. Despite receiving mildly favorable reviews, it struggled to connect with its typical family demographic, in part because of the crowded holiday multiplex. “Traditionally, the Thanksgiving corridor is a huge moneymaker for family films,” Bock says. “It just so happened that The Hunger Games sort of became that de facto family franchise, even though it obviously wasn’t really for kids.” With Marvel’s sanitary action becoming the template for more agreeable family fare, “The Good Dinosaur very much felt like it was a film for younger kids,” Bock adds, separating it from Pixar’s more common four-quadrant attractions.
The following week, The Good Dinosaur tumbled, making just $15.5 million; during its two-month run in theaters, it hauled in only $332 million globally (and just $123 million domestically), making it the lowest-grossing movie in Pixar’s history. (Onward would eventually earn less than The Good Dinosaur when it debuted in 2020 right before the pandemic shut down theaters.) Even after sneak peaks of the movie at Disney World, Disneyland, and on the company’s cruise ships, plus “a television marketing blitz” across ABC stations and “college campus tours with Pixar artists,” The Good Dinosaur failed to make a cultural footprint over the holiday season. “That was Pixar’s first hiccup,” says Eric Handler, an analyst at MKM Partners. “You can’t bat 100 percent in a creative industry forever.”
Overshadowed by Inside Out from earlier in the summer, the results still felt surprising. (The Good Dinosaur is one of the rare Pixar movies to never receive an Oscar nomination.) Dinosaurs have “held the public’s fascination for quite a while,” notes Bock, pointing to the sustained success of the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World franchises. And after Disney failed to make a mark with its 2000 animated movie Dinosaur, Sohn’s movie promised the company plenty of merchandising and commercial potential—even as its leadership changed hands. “The public appetite is definitely there and that’s probably why Pixar went forward with it even though they had misgivings about it,” Bock said. “I’m sure the studio pressured them to say, ‘Hey, everybody loves dinosaurs, they’re going to show up to this thing.’”
But shrinking Arlo and turning him cartoonish minimized its power. “The ‘boy and his dog’ movie was just hard to communicate because the dog is a human and the boy is a dinosaur,” Taylor says.
Ironically, Peterson’s original concept was still apparent in the products that lined toy shelves before Christmas, when parents could purchase “Jack the Ankylosaurus” or “Will the Triceratops,” even though the characters never made an appearance in the movie. As Hill would write, “It’s not like all evidence of the earlier version of this film has gone entirely extinct.”
In many ways, The Good Dinosaur highlighted the end of Pixar’s undisputed reign as an infallible animation house. The studio’s slippage had already begun in 2011, when Cars 2 and Monsters University signaled Disney’s sequel-hungry influence, but Pixar’s decision to follow its first relative flop with four sequels over four years—Finding Dory, The Incredibles 2, Cars 3, Toy Story 4—suggested its parent company would lean into risk-averse IP whenever it felt vulnerable. “Sequels are safety nets,” Bock says. “You don’t want another Good Dinosaur, and they needed that steady momentum that sequels offer in the marketplace.”
After all, Disney Animation had made its own splashes with Tangled and Frozen, finding success in the wrinkles of the company’s well-worn genres. And while Catmull originally intended for Pixar to make one sequel for every two original features, “once Disney acquired them, they were going to start following market incentives in a way that they hadn’t before,” Orr says. “At some point, if you’re owned by Disney, you need to show the proper profit results and you need to have the proper synergy with all of Disney’s other businesses, such as merchandise and theme parks.”
Not long after The Good Dinosaur’s release, Lasseter swung and missed a second time with Disney Animation’s Gigantic, based on “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which was delayed a year and then scrapped, incurring a $98 million write-down. Disney eventually dismissed Lasseter in 2018 for years of workplace misconduct, though, as Hill believes from speaking with Pixar employees, his consecutive financial stumbles were also a contributing factor in the decision.
As director Pete Docter has taken on a more prominent executive role over the past few years, Pixar has released three consecutive original titles—Luca, Soul, and Turning Red—that have debuted on Disney+ to critical praise, reigniting the studio’s commitment to new voices and narratives. “As a company ages, you lose some of your original people who were sort of the soul of the company,” Handler says, “but Pixar has done a great job of keeping a bunch of those people within the studio, and they’ve put together an excellent culture.”
“I think usually what comes out of [a flop] is a time of undervaluing the creatives, and then the creatives rise up again and then you start having successes again,” Bancroft says. “The best successes for Pixar and Disney and any company usually come from a gutsy idea.”
Ultimately, the gutsy idea behind The Good Dinosaur became too homogenized and derivative, and the dream of capitalizing on dino-themed content overshadowed the script’s weaknesses. “I think what they probably learned is: If there are issues with the story, we just don’t move forward with it until we’re ready,” Bock says. “You like to see them take giant swings with original content and you know that every once in a while you’re going to get a sequel to something you may not have wanted, but that’s OK because that just feeds the beast.”
To Pixar’s credit, it’s maintained a strong relationship with Peterson—the greatest “triumph of The Good Dinosaur,” according to Taylor—who continues to direct shorts for Disney+ and is writing the screenplay for one of the studio’s upcoming animated features. Meanwhile, Sohn has reteamed with Ream to direct Elemental, due next year, in which he’ll aim to build off his debut with a project that has less drama and a more fruitful afterlife. Perhaps that film’s release will convince people to circle back on The Good Dinosaur, and recall the single movie that failed to live up to the Pixar name.
Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.