Science at the Movies: W.J.T Mitchell on The Good Dinosaur

Pixar’s latest film, THE GOOD DINOSAUR, has a scientifically improbable conceit. The film posits: what would the world be like if a meteor had not struck earth 65 million years ago, and dinosaurs roamed the earth with humans?

This is a paleontologist’s dream. THE GOOD DINOSAUR features several kinds of dinosaurs including a Tyrannosaurus rex, a Pterodactylus, and a Velociraptor. There are also humans in the film. Actors who voice the characters include Frances McDormand and Jeffrey Wright.

The L.A. Review of Books recently published a review that explores the intersection of science and film in THE GOOD DINOSAUR. It is written by University of Chicago professor W.J.T. Mitchell whose book The Last Dinosaur looks at dinosaurs in the culture. His review is republished with permission below:

“What is the big deal with dinosaurs? The surface of our dinosaur fanaticism is barely scratched by Jurassic Park or the archaeological revivalism of Jurassic World, which rendered the 1990s theme park as a kind of Mayan ruin hidden in the vaster landscape of a whole world of dinosaurs. It is not enough to look at our long-standing craze for the age of reptiles on television from The Flintstones to Barney to Dinosaur Train. Or the cinematic tradition that originated with one of the earliest animated films, Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur, and has evolved through innumerable lost worlds and time travel films through King Kong’s decisive battle to protect white womanhood (a.k.a. Fay Wray) from the dinosaurs right down to Adam Simon’s Carnosaur, a masterpiece of bio-horror featuring a mad woman scientist who is cloning predatory saurians in the fast-food chicken joints of America. No, it is even deeper than that, going back into the exhibition of the first dinosaur models at the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851 (visited on opening day by Queen Victoria) to the failed attempt by Waterhouse Hawkins, the world’s first dinosaur artist, to create a Jurassic park in New York City’s Central Park in the period after the Civil War. Toys, prints, paintings, dioramas, sculptural models, and whole dinosaur environments have been created with increasingly elaborate realism over the last century and a half, making the dinosaur the most famous animal in the world. The fact that these animals only exist as images, and have never been seen in the flesh by a living human being, only seems to make them more attractive, various, and lively in the human imagination, a phenomenon that defies national boundaries, making them popular in every country in the world.

Stephen Jay Gould explained the dinosaur’s attraction as based in the fact that they are “big, fierce, and extinct.” He thought that size and ferocity made them fascinating but dangerous, while extinction made them safe. But this explanation seems conspicuously partial; plenty of dinosaurs, from Barney to the appliances and vehicles of the Flintstones, are none of these things. And if one relies on the evidence of The Good Dinosaur, the latest release from Pixar, one could hardly imagine a more emphatic counterexample. Arlo, the hero of The Good Dinosaur, is the runt of the litter. When his shell cracks open, he can hardly be found inside it. And he is anything but fierce. He is afraid of everything, and like the Cowardly Lion of Oz, he must undergo a whole series of ordeals in order to prove his mettle and make his mark. The entire premise of The Good Dinosaur, moreover, is an alternate history in which the extinction does not take place. The film opens with the fatal asteroid just missing the earth 65 million years ago, allowing the dinosaurs to survive, evolve, and (best of all) coexist with our human ancestors.

But this coexistence is not what we would expect from the precedent of earlier lost worlds in which humans generally engage in mortal combat with the monstrous saurians. In a clever reversal of expectations, The Good Dinosaur presents its titular creatures as smarter and more highly evolved than their human counterparts. The herbivores (Arlo’s family) are frontier farmers, cultivating their pastures and tending their very aggressive chickens. The carnivores, specifically the T-rexes, are herdsmen, or, more precisely, frontier cowboys herding “long-horns,” which are a hybrid creature confusing longhorn cattle with buffalo. The only other dinosaurs are that other fixture of the western frontier, murderous bandits and cattle rustlers played by vicious, treacherous pterodactyls with the voices of redneck hicks.

And it is the voices that play the most important role in the film. As far as I know, this is the first dinosaur talkie in which it is only the dinosaurs who do the talking, while the humans are treated as mute savages who can only roar, bark, and growl. Everyone who watches a trailer of The Good Dinosaur will come expecting a buddy film in which a little boy befriends a big dinosaur who will carry him through amazing adventures. But this little boy is pre-human, definitely not Homo sapiens, and not even Homo erectus — call him Homo canis. He is a feral boy, an orphan “critter” who believes he is a dog and behaves like one. He is an excellent companion for the intelligent but rather clueless Arlo, because he has learned to survive the wilderness on his own, so he can find berries, climb trees, and catch small animals. Arlo’s role in this friendship is to carry his proto-human buddy on his back when long distances need to be traversed; our Homo canis, on the other hand, is an agile, fast-moving partner, darting about like a combination of squirrel, monkey, rat terrier, and border collie.

With these rather original premises established, The Good Dinosaur proceeds to recycle some of the most durable plot devices of the American Western from Ford and Wayne to Disney and Pixar. Arlo, like Bambi before him, has to lose a parent, get separated from his family, and find himself alone in the wilderness, relying on his Toto-substitute to help him survive and find his way home. Adventures ensue, including a close shave with the vicious pterodactyls, and new friendships with the family cowpoke T-rexes who need help with their cattle drive. The deep western drawl of Sam Elliott (narrator of The Big Lebowski) provides an iconic voice for Butch, the poppa T-rex. But arguably the weirdest and most interestingly self-reflexive character in the entire story is the “Pet Collector” played by a deeply insecure triceratops with a generous array of extra horns festooned with a whole array of critters who serve as his friends and helpers. He explains that all these nonspeaking animals serve him as aids and protectors from scary things in the night and the dangers of unrealistic expectations. He tells Arlo that the key to having animal pet-helpers is to give them a name, and so Spot is given his identity. The idea that a dinosaur would have a human pet is perhaps the most mind-boggling reversal in the film.

The Pet Collector reminds us of the most fundamental role of language: the ability to name things, and by doing so, to make them belong to us, and we to them. (The naming of and “dominion over” animals are central to Adam’s role in the Garden of Eden.) But the Collector doesn’t just take possession of his adopted family of animals; in his excessive abundance of attachments, he is clearly also possessed, and appears to be a fearful hoarder of living things. Arlo, by contrast, only needs his one companion, Spot, and he is comfortable with letting Spot go when he finds a human family to join at the conclusion of the film.

All this reeks of what anthropologists used to call totemism, the adoption of natural things (animals and plants) as kinfolk and symbols of kinship in so-called primitive cultures. The problem is that dinosaurs were unknown to primitive cultures; they are a thoroughly modern discovery, never named, classified, or adopted until the British paleontologist Richard Owen proclaimed their existence in 1843. Could it be that modern cultures need totemism too? Freud’s Totem and Taboo argued that totemism was obsolete in the modern world, while taboos still abound. But he failed to consider the possibility of a distinctively modern totemism, in which the animal counterpart and companion to the human species is an extinct family of prehistoric animals discoverable only by modern science. Dinosaurs provide the perfect Darwinian allegory for the human race — namely, the possible (or should we say highly probable) prospect that human beings could wind up just like them — extinct. That, it seems to me, is the best explanation of the strange array of contradictory attitudes toward dinosaurs as popular icons. They are friends and companions, on the one hand, and feared enemies, on the other. They are ferocious wild animals and domestic pets, vicious predators and peaceful vegetarians. In short, they are a mirror of all the varieties of our own human species, distributed across a genus of extinct animals that exist only in the realms of unbridled imagination and biological science — a perfectly modern combination.

The word ‘totem’ comes from the Ojibwe language and means literally “he is a relative of mine.” Relatives and relationships, born or adopted, provide the fundamental social thematics of The Good Dinosaur. Perhaps that is why it so emphatically restricts the social groupings to nuclear families and their adopted kinfolk. Arlo’s family, for instance, despite having achieved independence through subsistence farming (they are busy stocking up food for the winter), seems quite alone in the world. There are no neighboring farmers much less villages, and we never see any other Apatosauruses in the entire film. It is as if they are one of those lonely frontier-farming families in the American West who have completely lost contact with civilization. The same is true of the T-rex cowboy family; it is not clear what the destination of their cattle drive could be, or that there are any other cowboys in the world besides them. It is a very strange world in which no societies or civilizations exist, just isolated families in a rather cruel and beautiful North American wilderness.

And this strange dissonance between the figures and the landscape is the key to the peculiar cinematic style of The Last Dinosaur. The mountains, forests, and raging river that plays a central role in the mise-en-scène are rendered in hyper-photorealistic style, so that when the camera turns away from the characters, one could be in a classic Disney True Life Adventure set in the Pacific Northwest. But when it returns to the characters, their figures are highly schematic, almost cookie-cutter stereotypes. At one glance the film reflects the latest in animation; at another it seems to throw us back to the hand-drawn figures of Gertie the Dinosaur (whose favorite trick of pulling up trees and throwing them around is repeated by the Apatosaurus family). It is as if the filmmakers wanted to remind us at every turn of the peculiar stitching together of fantasy and reality, imagination and natural science, that constitutes the whole world of dinosaur fictions. Perhaps the point of this is to signal that this is emphatically a movie for children. Arlo’s rubber-like body is buffeted by violent falls and collisions throughout, but it scarcely shows a bruise. In contrast to Jurassic Park, where the dinosaurs are rendered with an exquisite realism that is completely at one with the environment, The Good Dinosaur never lets its dinosaurs become flesh and blood. The hysterical parents who fill IMDB reviews with complaints about the film’s violence and cruelty are no doubt the very same ones who like the pablum of conflict-free television where everyone is nice and no one ever gets hurt. Fortunately, these folks can watch reruns of the awful Barney, without question the most soporific contribution ever made to the genre of dino-fiction. For discerning parents and grandparents, however, I recommend The Good Dinosaur, which, despite its title, offers a strong dose of realism, an encounter with death, fear, and violence, coupled with amazing feats of animation and a very smart story that links it to the worthy tradition that runs from Winsor McCay to Steven Spielberg. This film (and a large box of popcorn) held my two-year-old grandson’s rapt attention for a whole hour. Not quite enough to last the whole film, but not bad for the first visit to a movie theater this boy has made, and pretty satisfying for grandpa too.”

THE GOOD DINOSAUR was also reviewed by Reverse Shot, which is a journal published by the Museum of the Moving Image.