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The Good Dinosaur: Wyoming's wonder 4 min read

The Good Dinosaur: Wyoming's wonder

A film of stunning beauty and self-discovery that brings the awe-inspiring views of Wyoming to the animated screen.

By Cary Littlejohn
The Good Dinosaur: Wyoming's wonder Post image

As promised, this begins The Pixar Project, where I’m going to review all of the Pixar films in the run-up to the Dec. 25 release of Soul. If you know a friend or relative or Pixar aficionado who’d enjoy this project, please pass it along.

The Good Dinosaur was another Pixar film I had completely missed, and it was fitting that I would first see it sitting in the very state from which the inspiration for its stunning, photorealistic landscapes were drawn.

Within the first few minutes of the film, the viewer experiences a landscape-based uncanny valley moment where the mind spins as it tries to discern if the flowing rivers were actually images of real water. It wasn’t just me focusing on the landscapes; the filmmakers were too, according to this article from Slash Film. (Also WIRED, FiveThirtyEight, and Business Insider.)

When you get beyond the stunning visuals, you get the story of a painfully awkward runt-of-the-litter story that follows Arlo, the tiniest, clumsiest little apatosaurus you ever did see. He’s controlled by near-paralyzing fear, presumably the result of his small stature compared to his brother and sister, and a general lack of confidence. His father builds a silo to allow the family to store its corn crops away from some critter that’s stealing them, and when the construction is completed, he “puts his mark” on the outside of it, a muddy footprint to sign his work. He invites his wife to place her mark on it first, and then when the kids clamor to place theirs on the structure as well, Poppa takes a surprisingly tough stance by insisting that the kids can’t simply sign away; they have to earn it by doing something big. (Any kid given the treat of signing his or her name in wet concrete would object to Poppa’s parenting here.)

Brother gets to make his mark, then sister, and driven to keep up, Arlo tries but really doesn’t thrive. His dad gives him a newer, bigger job (killing the critter thief after it gets caught in a trap), but this job never seemed a fit for Arlo. He predictably messes it up, and then he and his father take off after the critter (a small human boy) only to have the outing result in a very Lion King-esque death of Arlo’s father in a flood.

Things back on the farm are obviously hampered by Poppa’s passing, and shortly after Arlo says he’ll do more to pull his weight, he’s swept away by the river himself and is a lost little boy. The rest of the film is his and his sworn-enemy-turned-best-friend, Spot, as they try to find their way back to Arlo’s family’s farm.

The return home gives numerous opportunities to revel in the grandeur of Wyoming’s landscapes. The western part of the state, notably Grand Tetons National Park, inspired the film, and there was something poetic about the little dinosaur finding himself in that particular wilderness. I can relate to it; Wyoming is where I’m also trying to find myself, and there is something awe-inspiring and wondrous in this space out here. There’s a moment when Arlo and Spot are nearing home and as Arlo runs up a mountain excitedly, he tosses Spot up through the low-sitting clouds and catches him as he punches a hole in the clouds on his return to Earth. Spot has clearly seen something above the clouds that makes me want more. Finally, standing on the peak of a mountain, Arlo stretches his long neck above the clouds, and they can both see the sun drenching the peaks of Clawtooth Mountain, the landmark that Arlo is using to get home, and he simply says, “Wow.”

Arlo is actually really hard to watch for most of the film, with his helplessness edging up to the line that separates the sympathetic and the pathetic. He spends so much time falling down and hurting himself that it begins to grate on the nerves. Though I’ve rarely felt as out of sorts as Arlo, I did see parallels to my life in Arlo’s struggles. I wouldn’t call them failures, but I’ve had a bunch of adventures that all led me to make the long drive from Tennessee to Wyoming for my first job in journalism.

I can relate to that feeling when he poked his head above the clouds, even if I haven’t yet visited the same ground that Arlo trod. After my dad and I drove out here in a whirlwind trip, we drove to Devils Tower National Monument on the way home. It was early in the morning, and we had a 20+ hour drive ahead of it, but my dad said he didn’t know when he’d get back out here and we were too close not to stop. Following a GPS route off the interstate and onto state roads, we wandered forward, unsure of what to expect. Then we could see its distinctive shape off in the distant, and even from afar, it was a captivating sight. But then we got closer, and it grew in size and wonder. Driving up the winding road to the parking area, it would emerge from behind the trees and it was enough to take my breath away. Then we were parked and walking up the trail and standing at the base of this tower, this rock formation infinitely more impressive than the similarly shaped silo built by Poppa, and it was such a special moment to me. Nothing spectacular happened. It was rather quiet, except for a few comments of awe and reading aloud the information from the park service signs.

There is an overlook on the Tower Trail which overlooks a vast open expanse, and we sat on a bench and just took it in on a cool morning in June. It’s a memory I have no trouble recalling, and it came rushing forth when I watched the majesty of Wyoming play out in next-level animation in a story about fathers and sons and finding oneself.

There was only one thing to say: Wow.

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