The death of Disney characters – Disney parents especially – has left an indelible mark on kids for decades. Little Cinderella sobbing at her father”s bedside after his untimely death. Anna and Elsa”s parents” ship getting swallowed up by massive waves. The thundering shot that echoes through the snow-covered forest, silencing Bambi”s mom”s cries of “Keep running!” A sudden flash of sharp teeth and big, heavy fins killing Nemo”s mom and hundreds of his brothers and sisters. The dust settling in the canyon, so quiet with the stampede gone, empty, save for little Simba, nudging Mufasa”s nose and tugging on his ear, begging, “Dad, we gotta go home” – to no response.
So when the makers of Pixar”s newest film, “The Good Dinosaur,” which opened in theaters last week, decided to again tackle the subject of parental death, there was some eye-rolling, some murmurs around the Disney-owned animation studio of “We”re doing the family movie death again?”
It was Pixar head John Lasseter who insisted that they do just that. While working on “Good Dinosaur,” he spoke to a friend, a mother who had recently lost her husband, and she made a point of telling Lasseter that it”s important to continue to tell stories of loss in a way children can relate.
“Good Dinosaur” producer Denise Ream agreed with Lasseter. “It's a fact of life: Children lose their parents. They lose people that they love,” she told HitFix. “Not all of the kids are going to go back and watch ‘Bambi” or ‘The Lion King,” so it's important for each generation to have stories that they can relate to that they”re going to go see at the movies that are dealing with these topics.”
SPOILERS FOR “THE GOOD DINOSAUR” AHEAD
In “The Good Dinosaur,” 11-year-old Apatosaurus Arlo loses his father early on in the film, in circumstances similar to Mufasa”s traumatizing death, as Arlo”s Poppa is protecting him during a fierce storm.
When Arlo is swept far away from home by the raging river, his journey back becomes a boy and his dog story – with a twist. Arlo is the boy here, and the dog is a human boy, named Spot, in this world where dinosaurs live alongside human “critters.”
The scene that”s the real tear-jerker is the moment Arlo and Spot rest alongside the river, where the moonlight dances on the calm water. Arlo tells Spot, “I miss my family.” Spot gives a quizzical little bark, and Arlo tries to teach him what family is by placing sticks in the sand representing his parents and siblings, then drawing a circle around them with his nose. Spot at first doesn”t seem to understand, but then he does the same with two sticks and one smaller stick. He then softly knocks over the two taller sticks and buries them in the sand. Arlo then does the same with the stick representing Poppa.
Though Pixar is again dealing with death here – it”s in a fresh way, touching on an aspect of it the studio hadn”t before: the idea of shared grief, loss as a common experience. Arlo and Spot have both lost family members, and that connects them.
“I always say [of people who have dealt with the death of a parent], it”s a club that you don't wish anyone to be a part of,” said Ream, who herself has lost a parent.
The layout artist working on this scene, Jan Pfenninger, was faced with the sudden death of his father during production.
“He came back and just poured his heart and soul into laying out that scene,” Ream said. “He said it was incredibly therapeutic for him to do that scene, and when I look at that scene I think of him, and he thinks of him, and he's really proud of that, and it's an homage to his father.”
Just as Pfenninger put much care into his layout decisions in the scene, all members of the “Good Dino” crew worked to get the right look and tone for this poignant moment. To make the scene “achingly beautiful” director of photography Sharon Calahan designed the scene”s “out-of-focus sparkles behind Spot” – the moonlight on the water that also reflects onto the stones behind Arlo. Production designer Harley Jessup and his team did several passes of the sticks. Earlier designs had branches that looked like four legs on each stick. “We needed to get them representative enough that the audience could understand and you could believe those two characters were understanding what they were trying to communicate but not so human-like or dinosaur-like that it looked really forced,” Jessup told HitFix.
In this scene, Spot is more human than at any point thus far in the film. He”s displayed all the typical mannerisms of a dog – panting with his tongue hanging out, sniffing out a trail, thumping a rear foot on the ground. But here we see his most human gesture – rubbing his nose with a little sniffle.
But he still is a “dog,” and he does something very dog-like here: Spot places his hand on his effigies in the sand and howls at the moon. And Arlo, with his tentative voice, joins in. The dog teaches the boy how to mourn.
“In a boy and dog movie, there's a wound in the heart of a child that must be healed,” screenwriter Meg LaFauve explained. “And it's a child who has gone through something that they can't assimilate in their heart, in their psychology, in their emotion. [Spot] is further ahead emotionally than Arlo, which is why he can guide him, because he”s gone through this. But he also has a piece left. He”s not quite finished assimilating it because he”s lonely. And he hasn”t quite bonded to anybody else. So by him bonding to Arlo he can finish.”
That bond and Spot as a guide was also important to director Peter Sohn. “We would talk about the dinosaur as a metaphor of being stuck,” he said. “And then how do you move forward and emotionally try to figure this out? Spot can be that catalyst.”
Ultimately, though the makers of “The Good Dinosaur” hope the scene resonates especially with anyone who”s coped with the death of a parent, they see this moment between Arlo and Spot as relevant to many experiences of grief.
“Children go through different kinds of loses,” LeFauve said. “A divorce, while potentially needed for that child, is a loss of a family unit the way they see it. So they have to assimilate and figure out who they are now. Children really wanna know who they are. If this parent is not here or this isn”t the same, then who am I? And that is Arlo”s journey.”