A couple of weeks ago at the D23 Expo, during the lengthy presentation on Walt Disney Animation, there was a noticeable absentee: Pixar alum Bob Peterson, whose debut feature as a director, "The Good Dinosaur" (he co-directed "Up" with Pete Docter), was featured heavily. Co-director Pete Sohn was there, as was producer Denise Ream, plus a few members of the movie's starry voice cast (including Lucas Neff, Judy Greer and Bill Hader). Peterson's absence was conspicuously odd and according to Disney personnel on the scene, Peterson wasn't available due to "scheduling difficulties." But of course it looks like now that isn't the case: Blue Sky Disney is reporting that Peterson is officially off the project and that the movie is frantically looking for a replacement so it can make its May 30th, 2014 release date.
Peterson has been an unsung member of Pixar's creative core, starting with their very first feature, 1995's groundbreaking "Toy Story" (where he served as an animator and storyboard artist). Peterson continued with the company, working on every movie since "Toy Story" in some creative capacity (including this summer's wonderful "Monsters University"). Peterson co-wrote "Finding Nemo," "Toy Story 2" and "A Bug's Life" and won an Oscar for his work on "Up" (he is also the voice of lovable talking dog Dug). With "Good Dinosaur," it was time for the animator to step out of the shadows and be counted amongst the other, more visible Pixar geniuses: it was a tale as sweet and bizarre as Bob himself, involving an alternate earth where the asteroid that killed all the dinosaurs missed the planet completely.
When the footage unspooled at D23, the footage didn't exactly light the auditorium on fire. We talked about how beautiful the movie looked recently, including a lengthy wordless sequence that introduces the dinosaurs' agrarian society. But at the same time the plot for the movie seemed somewhat underwhelming, with a long-necked dinosaur befriending a primitive caveman he names Spot (we were always assuming the movie would take place in modern times with dinosaurs living alongside humans in harmony). Not only was some of the footage eerily reminiscent of DreamWorks Animation's "The Croods" from earlier this year, but it seemed to lack the ambition and scope expected, boiling down to yet another mismatched buddy movie (one of the studio's default narrative settings). A gorgeously rendered, deeply heartfelt mismatched buddy movie, but a mismatched buddy movie just the same.
Apparently the lack of enthusiasm carried over to the studio; the project hangs in limbo while decisions are hastily made. This isn't the first time a filmmaker has been replaced at the 11th hour: "Toy Story 2," "Ratatouille," "Cars 2" and "Brave" all featured last minute switcheroos, and all were strong performers, both critically and commercially. "Brave," probably the most contentiously developed project in the history of Pixar, given the touchy issues of gender associated with the film (and Pixar's own noted glass ceiling), ended up becoming a box office juggernaut and the winner for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. So just because "The Good Dinosaur" is apparently down, doesn't mean it's out by any stretch of the imagination.
Should the project live on (and we're hopeful it will), maybe whoever Pixar gets in on the project will inject it with some fresh blood and turn those seesawing hands of indifference witnessed at D23 into rigidly enthusiastic thumbs up. We also hope that Peterson remains at the studio, although depending on the circumstances of his removal and the level of hurt feelings involved, could be wishful thinking on our part (removed directors Jan Pinkava and Brenda Chapman never returned to the Emeryville campus following their dismissal). This is a very important project for Pixar, since it is an entirely new property amidst what many perceive as an endless sea of sequels and spin-offs, plus the studio's corporate overlords at Disney have a keen eye on the project (there's an entire dinosaur-themed area of Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida ready for a redo), so our guess is that the project is not extinct but will continue, sadly without one of the studio's certifiable legends.
Fingers crossed and "The Good Dinosaur" will be opening on May 30th, 2014.