The Good Dinosaur Rewrite

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Spoiler Courtesy

If you haven’t watched Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, and plan to, you may not want to read this.

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I have given this a lot of thought since I took my son to see The Good Dinosaur on Black Friday, and since it keeps swirling back to me the way a boomerang is supposed to I decided to share it.

First you must understand: I am a believer in the movie making magic that Pixar Entertainment wields. I pretty much go in to their movies with the expectation to be floored, wowed, torn into tiny pieces of human emotion. Over the years, I think I’ve developed an addiction to their specific brand of story. I gear up for the feels and I have rarely been let down.

I am also a writer that has endured — will always have to endure — high-level critique of my work. I know how hard it is to take that in, and even more, I understand how easy it is to get lost on the story’s journey, veering, spiraling, floundering until you no longer even recognize the work you’ve ended up with. I know how hard it is to fix it once you get to that soul-crushing crossroad.

That said, I have a pretty huge note at the story level of The Good Dinosaur, and rather than only tell you what I think isn’t working, I am going to offer what I would do to fix it.

Here is the movie description:

Luckily for young Arlo, his parents (Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand) and his two siblings, the mighty dinosaurs were not wiped out 65 million years ago. When a rainstorm washes poor Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) downriver, he ends up bruised, battered and miles away from home. Good fortune shines on the frightened dino when he meets Spot (Jack Bright), a Neanderthal boy who offers his help and friendship. Together, the unlikely duo embark on an epic adventure to reunite Arlo with his beloved family.

It would take too long to give you a play-by-play of the entire plot, so what I am going to do instead is focus on the key points I feel like needed to be revised.

Shall we?

Concept and Set-up:

What if dinosaurs didn’t die out but lived on? The movie offers a society (similar to the world in CARS) run by dinosaurs. They have evolved to the point of creating their own jobs for themselves, finding ways to sustain their food supply, forming family units. They are essentially humans in dinosaur clothes.

I do think this concept works for an animated feature. Children can get into it, like they did CARS, and adults can pick out the finer nuances of the idea. (An example: The T-Rex cattle wranglers, meat eaters, that look like they are riding horses because of their tiny little arms. Pretty fabulous!)

But that is not the only BIG IDEA at play in this story. We also have parallels drawn between the world of Good Dinosaur and the Range, like Home, Home on the, as well as the classic protagonist spirit journey arc.

THEN we have the protagonist’s inability to fit in with his family because he’s timid and fearful.

Thanks to the protagonist’s fear, his father ends up dead.

But it’s not until the little Caveboy comes back a second time, that the inciting incident happens. Arlo (the protagonist) finally shows some story gumption when he confronts the Caveboy and blames him for his father’s death, chasing the boy away from the safety of his home and getting swept off by the river.

It is, to me, a case of too much, too fast. It gets muddled on delivery.

My Revision:

The description of the movie leaves out a huge chunk of this information and instead focuses — as it should — on Arlo’s journey. The issue with the setup is figuring out a way to make Arlo’s stakes high enough so that he needs to take this spirit journey, and endearing enough that we need to follow him on it.

I am suggesting two major changes:

  • Eliminate his brother
  • Leave his father alive.

Begin with the world set up: Dinosaurs don’t die.

Go to the small picture: a single dinosaur family surviving.

Introduce Arlo — scrawny, fearful, not really built for field labor, and is subtly seen as a disappointment by his father. On farms, boys usually take over once their father’s can’t run it anymore, but that isn’t Arlo’s strong suit. To give it a feminist edge, hint that his sister is better suited for this work and also wants it more than he does. Build the relationship with his sister up, show that Arlo needs to face his fear of letting his father down, and show how that manifests in him being fearful in other situations.

Introduce the Critters eating their food supply, and Arlo’s inability to kill the Caveboy. Have a scene here where Arlo says something awful to his father about farm life. Have his father call him a coward. And then, to drive it home, have his father go searching for the Caveboy to finish Arlo’s job and get injured. Arlo blames himself, and when he sees the Caveboy again, he CHOOSES to catch him to prove he’s not a coward. This is of course the wrong motive, which is important to show his growth through the story.

He falls into the river, goes unconscious and finds himself far from home with no survival skills and no idea how to get home.

This gives Arlo’s character real tension and tightens the plot, we don’t waste all that time on the father’s death, and we don’t meander with the brother that adds nothing to the plot. Arlo needs to be active, and he needs to be searching for something more. He’s a kid, of course he wants to get back home, he’s worried he’ll be in trouble because they’ll think he ran away, and probably secretly worried they will be fine without him, but Arlo is on this journey because of fear, and I think, because he needs to find out who he is. This is a coming of age tale, after all.

Things this changes:

  1. Needing to get home to help with the harvest. In the movie as it is now, Arlo arrives home at the end when they have already finished bringing in the harvest, negating this motive. They are exhausted and for all they know he abandoned them. By eliminating the father’s death, and making the sister more active, this would no longer need to be a driving force for Arlo, leaving him to have deeper goals and motives.
  2. The conflict he has over his father’s death. This is not The Lion King, guys, and for me, the father’s death had little emotional resonance. He spends the whole time either watching his son fail, or telling him to face his fear. Telling is the key word. With all that telling, I lost interest. I also feel like this is something I have seen too many times, and in this case it didn’t add to the movie.
  3. The connection between Spot (Caveboy) and Arlo over the loss of a parent. I think this could still be established. Arlo is a lost child, and so is Spot. All they have now is each other.

Smaller Points:

Shaman Character-

There is a weird Styracosaurus introduced early in the second act that could have served as a Shaman or Spirit Guide. Later, the father is used as a sort of Spirit Guide. Streamline this, pick one Shaman character and have that character recur at least three times in the story. Again, this is about utilizing the concept and worldbuilding. When you are trying to create an imaginary world, some things need to be told and retold to make the world feel fully fleshed out.

More characters on the Range-

Another way to utilize your world building is by using common and recognizable archetypal characters to fill out the world and drive theme home. Arlo needed to experience more for this to be a true spirit journey. His experiences are not varied enough, and his encounters to not provide enough of an argument.

Final Thoughts

The script would have to be revised throughout based on these changes, with an emphasis on the spirit journey concept and worldbuilding. By cutting unnecessary plot points, and getting the tension off a death and onto the struggle of the main character, the story will already feel less passive and more focused.

Critique is a compliment, it means I cared about this story. It is easier to stand on the outside of something and see the problems and even the solutions, than it is to be inside trying to solve them in real time. This is one opinion of a way to improve a story, and I don’t claim to be an expert on any of this.

Also, Pixar, if you are interested in hiring me, my contact info is in my bio. I have a screenplay sample, and I’m available immediately.

A Thank You Letter to Mockingjay

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This is not an essay on the merits or failures of Mockingjay the book or the film. It is not a critique.

This is a thank you letter.

But first you must understand my history with this story.

On the day before my twenty-sixth birthday, five years ago, at eleven o’clock at night, I finished reading Mockingjay for the very first time. Having read all the Hunger Games books in the span of three days, I had gotten too absorbed, too close to these fictional people, this fictional war, those fictional deaths. I spent my birthday sobbing. I struggled to make sense of the sudden dark hole I found myself in. I was an adult, a thinking woman who was raising a child and married and paying a mortgage, but I couldn’t have a conversation that day without welling up in tears.

It created a flood out of which many, many things flowed. I discovered the Young Adult genre because of these books, and began consuming fiction like it was some sort of gloriously delectable goody. I started writing my own fiction, too. Believing I could and should become an author. I found my own voice that way, imitating Suzanne Collins, Maggie Steifvater, Libba Bray — others, greats — until out of their brilliant voices my own, still raw but real, began to emerge.

But there was something I couldn’t shake. A gnawing that unsettled me and left me at a loss for words to explain. As life changing as The Hunger Games was for me, it also felt unfinished. Not wrong in the way Gilmore Girls or Lost will always be because of the way they ended, but like I was waiting for the rest of the story. I had walked with Katniss through the Games, through a war, through deaths and sacrifices, victory and loss, but the time I spent in her triumph was too short. What I needed for this reluctant hero was to experience the simplicity she had always wanted. A life without war and hunger — the things I would argue Katniss ultimately fought the Games and the war for. Even more than Prim or Peeta.

Two pages in an Epilogue, no matter how beautiful, were not enough for me.

Finally, I saw MockingjayPart 2, and in the last minutes of the movie I found myself sobbing uncontrollably. Finally, I got what I needed for my hero and myself.

I watched the war’s harshness melt away from Katniss. I saw her look at Peeta like he was someone she wanted and not just needed to survive. I got to see her decide to lie beside him, letting him hold her and love her back. I saw her babies. And for a few minutes I wasn’t watching Jennifer Lawrence play a character, but I was with Katniss again. My Katniss. The one I had followed to war five years ago. The one that made me remember that books possess the power to change me when I let them.

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I was grateful. I found closure.

Certainly, my experience speaks to how the visual story can communicate a different part of the character’s experience. Katniss was a hard character to ever really know, even for a reader in her head, but when I saw her living on screen she proved to me, finally, that all she’d walked through had been worth it.

But I think it was more than that.

Humans crave the triumph of good over evil — unless you’re a Death Eater or member of Hydra or Sauron. That is why the heroes journey has been written in every form imaginable, and then was written again from another point of view, and then reversed, over and over and over.

We need Harry to walk into the Forbidden Forest and face Voldemort. We need Frodo to take the ring, and when he falters we need Sam to make sure he drops it in the fires of Mordor. We need Buffy to sacrifice herself for her sister and stop the end of the world…again. But I almost think sometimes we need the After more.

We need to see that Harry got married and holds down a job, Ginny probably bakes him pie on Sundays, and James likely wants one of those Muggle video game systems. We need to see Frodo go with the Elves because he gave too much of himself to his journey and now he needs to a quiet place to pass his last days.

We have to see that Katniss didn’t need power and prestige to consider herself the winner of the Games. She had done all she did so she could live a life most of us would find dull. The movie gave me that moment in a way the book alone had not been able to. I needed it.

We are in war all over the world. The horrors we experience in the fictional Panem are happening in real, more brutal ways, now, here, in our backyards, where our children live and play and learn. The reason we fight back isn’t for world peace. Peace is an unattainable dream. Mockingjay doesn’t pretend that it is, and I am not pretending it should be.

But what it promises is this: Our children are worth it. Humanity is worth it.

We don’t need much to win. Just a table filled with family and friends, the promise to work harder, the action of standing up to the bullies or the tyrants, to the terror and the violence. Unity is impossible, so stop seeking it. We will never all agree on policy or faith, whether guns should be banned or abortions outlawed. We are so divided, and in our division we are weakened. We will lose and become enemies, and when we need to, we will fail each other. We will riot and fight. We will kill. We will look the other way.

We need heroes in our stories, but we are the only heroes available to this world. Us, thinking and feeling human beings that allow our hearts to be changed.Our heroes journey starts when we say yes. Yes, I’ll give back to the hurt and the wounded. Yes, I’ll listen. Yes, I’ll look at the pain and not ignore it just because it is not mine.

This is a thank you to Mockingjay, Part 2 for reminding me why I shouldn’t give up the fight. Why I can be my own hero in my own life. Why I already am.

Faith-ish

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I have these amazing women in my life. Women that are bold and brash. Women that are gentle and maternal. Women with voices that can always break through the noise in my head.

I have a woman in my life that sends me Buzzfeed articles. She gets that I will always care about anything Harry Potter and not-so-secretly wish Hogwarts was a place I could live in outside my imagination.

I have a woman in my life that believes I am going to be a famous writer. She believes it sometimes when I do not. She believes in magic but not in a silly way. She is a unicorn.

I have a woman in my life that knows what it’s like to feel trapped by your own dreams. We chase those dreams, and also wonder what our lives would look like living easier dreams. She lets me bitch about. She joins in.

I have a woman in my life that has a new baby. We are in different stages of the same adventure. When I think of her as brave, I remind myself I am too, because we both decided to love a little person more than we love ourselves.

Tonight I was talking with a woman that came into my life through serendipity and became a conduit for miracles. I was telling her how I was scared and tired. How I was just looking for a moment to stop, to breathe because lately it felt like my lungs were full of water.

She told me to remember that we aren’t given more than we can handle, but sometimes the universe has more faith in us than we do.

Everything really comes down to that. Faith. Do you have faith to move mountains? Do you believe you are not alone in your fight?

Sometimes, despite all the women I have, and the husband I know I can lean on, despite my bravery and my stubbornness, despite knowing I’m not really alone at all, I find myself adrift. I worry. I sit on my computer and scroll through Facebook, looking for distraction. I wish I could bypass this traffic jam I’ve been stuck in for longer than I like to admit. I wish I could  just be different. Be settled. Feel easy.

I wonder if I missed something, somewhere on the life road map I keep flipping around hoping to make sense of. Because if I am in the thick of it — if I’m really doing life right — wouldn’t I stop feeling lost?

I’m going to venture out on a precarious limb here and guess that the answer is NO. Moments of clarity come only when you have already decided to believe. This is a problem people without a notion of Faith encounter. Faith is believing without seeing. It’s bang-a-rang. It’s closing your damn eyes and just stepping.

Faith can burn out. It can grow dim and hard to see. Fear can start to look like it, playing your emotions with logic and reason. Anger can mask your need for it. Longing can pull you away from it.

Here’s some honesty, guys: I’m terrified.

I am scared most of the time of everything I’m doing, but I can’t stop. The point of no return is a distant memory. I’m deep in the woods without a flashlight. I can’t get out without moving. I can’t move without faith.

And we know what this means. Raise your empty glass, prepare your handful of imaginary pudding. It’s bang-a-rang time.