Why Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur Had To Overhaul Its Voice Cast (Exclusive)

Tom Butler
Senior UK Writer

Pixar’s Peter Sohn has revealed exactly why the voice cast of ‘The Good Dinosaur’ was overhauled six months ahead of the film’s release.

John Lithgow, Neil Patrick Harris, Judy Greer, and Bill Hader were all dropped from the project over the weekend with Anna Paquin, Jeffrey Wright, and Sam Elliot boarding the voice cast. Crucially as Sohn explains, it’s all because the lead role of Arlo is now being played 13-year-old Raymond Ochoa rather than the 29-year-old Lucas Neff.

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“It was all about finding a younger Arlo,” Sohn tells Yahoo Movies, “It was really about finding a boy [to play Arlo], so that we could push into that idea of him growing up and becoming a man, so the actor previous – who is a great actor – he was already a man, and so I needed to push that arc and find that compassionate kid, so that was the major kind of change.”

“Then everything else, all the other characters that supported that story came in and out and changed and evolved and through that evolution, some of those performers changed out of it.”

Above: Peter Sohn

The trio of Arlo’s siblings that were due to be voiced by Patrick Harris, Greer, and Hader have now been amalgamated into one character – a brother named Buck, now voiced by Marcus Scribner.

Sohn was promoted to sole director on ‘The Good Dinosaur’ in 2013 after the film’s original director Bob Petersen left the project due to story problems, and the film has since been completely revised. ‘Toy Story’ and ‘Ratatouille’ also suffered similar production woes, with huge swathes of the original ideas being thrown out in favour of better ones and Sohn assures us its all “part of the process”.

Here’s the rest of our exclusive interview with ‘The Good Dinosaur’ director Peter Sohn.

You talked about wanting to make this film so it transcends language barriers, so have you tried to make this like a silent movie?

Peter Sohn: Yes, absolutely. There’s not a lot of dialogue in the film, and we’re trying to create a tone that is – I wouldn’t say quieter – but in that sincere way that ‘Bambi’ and ‘Dumbo’ are. Like those early films where a gesture can mean everything, where certain behaviours can mean more than words could ever and in my years in animation, hunting for these gestures, hunting for these little details that can speak volumes, that’s been a great inspiration.

Are we going to see extended silent periods like in ‘Up’ and ‘Wall-E’?

PS: Yes, absolutely. There are moments in the film where Arlo’s just dealing with nature and it’s been really exciting trying it out like that, because for me, I love movies, and I love being enveloped in something and really immersed. There’s a lot of orchestration to get that going. Sometimes I can really mess up something but I’ve been getting a lot of help in terms of balancing all these things.

You see these things over and over again and it’s always finding that balance of pulling the audience in and not raising any flags that pull the audience out. It’s been amazing.

How finished is the movie right now?

PS: It’s about 50% animated right now. We’ve got around 20-30% being lit. I saw a whole lot of it today, but this is the earlier stuff, so I’m still handing out scenes to animators in terms of finishing up those sequences. We are on our way down that track.

I can’t tell you how crazy this has been. It’s been such an amazing learning experience. First time director with a group like the people at Pixar, and how generous and how protective they can be about when we do become vulnerable, when we do try to do something that is risky.

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They’re great defenders of the movie love. This part of the production has been really fascinating for me because for so much of this, you go from drawings and then you just discuss ideas with people and then through math, all this stuff has to be built. I’m sure you must have talked to a lot of other animation directors about this sort of thing, but for me, through the process, for months and months, you’re like “We’re just spinning in this one cycle. When do you get to see the actual film?”

In this past month and a half we’ve now seen things coming out of that black hole, actual frames of the film and it’s been so inspiring because of all the work that people are doing, I’m just so damn proud of what everyone’s doing.

You’ve worked your way up at Pixar all the way up to a director calling the shots. How has that transition been for you personally?

PS: It hasn’t been difficult in that sense, because I never see it like me calling the shots. I see it like a parental analogy. My job is always trying to take care of this thing and if the kid is sick, I got great advice from Andrew Stanton and he said: “If that kid is sick, call in the doctors, they can help. Trust your gut.”

Andrew was talking about being placed into the position where it’s always about instincts and taste and they’ve trusted me with this, taking care of this kid and it has never been about getting the job and calling the shots. It has always been about the film as the priority. There are a lot of people at places that I’ve worked at where people, all they’re concerned about is their job and what their role is which is a good thing and is important but at the same time working on movies when the priority is the film, it always makes it better when someone’s that priority becomes less about the film and more about their job, I’ve seen films where they’ve had issues with that.

In terms of my work, I’ve always been about trying to support the film as best as I can so every job that I’ve done I’ve always had that mentality, so this is just learning new things for me, because there are a lot of departments that I’ve never dealt with that I’ve been getting a lot of great help from. They’ve been like: “Look I know you don’t know the technical side very well, but I have experience for years helping out other movies, this is how we should do this.”

It’s like: I trust you with that. Move forward with that.

Taking the parental analogy further, it’s fair to say you’re not the real father, that Bob Petersen originally pitched it? At what point did Pixar realise the kid was sick?

PS: We were deeper into it. It wasn’t just like an early [internal screening], it was a later one, and I was helping right from the beginning of it. Bob had pitched the early concept of it and I was there to help support the film as best as I could.

All these films go through this. Every film I’ve worked on, they always go through this, and I guess it all goes with trying to build something original and new, you always have to go through this process.

I don’t remember the number of screenings [we went through], but I do remember the film becoming heavier. Meaning that there were a lot of ideas in there that were supporting – all good ideas – they were just support ideas of other ideas that were good, but it just became about trying to honour what Bob started.

I love Bob, he’s a great mentor to me and still is, and he’s still at Pixar. Everything that we started out with, I’m trying to protect. It’s that initial DNA that I want to honour for sure and I feel like we have, we really have. We’re not done yet.

So it’s the idea of man and dog, but reversed, that was the key idea that remains?

PS: Yes.

What is the film about now, beyond that?

PS: It’s become much more of a coming of age story and all that that implies in terms of this kid maturing and finding out what he’s made of, both externally and internally. We start out with him very incapable and weak and then there’s strength that he finds in himself.

How he finds that is the emotional core that is all connected through Spot [Arlo’s feral human companion].  

What does the title The Good Dinosaur mean?

PS: Arlo has a lot of issues when he’s born. He’s fearful and he’s weak and he’s disconnected from the family because of these issues and he feels like he’s not worthy, and so he finds a way to become worthy.

Any particular new cast member you’re excited to be working with?

PS: We’ve been working with them for a while now and I love Jeffrey Wright, he’s been fantastic. Sam Elliot, Anna Paquin… all of them! They’ve been so, like I can’t tell you… to see theses characters come alive with these performances, it’s what I love about animation – bringing something to life is so fun and seeing talented performers do what they do is – as a movie lover – it’s just inspiring to see.

I’m a fan foremost and getting to talk and work with some of these performers it’s always like – “I loved you in that movie!”. It’s been very exciting with all of them even the new guys that haven’t done a lot of it, it’s just about trying to make something come alive. I’m so sincere about it. I’m sure it sounds sappy but it’s a real fun process in making something real like this.

‘The Good Dinosaur’ is coming to UK cinemas on 27 November. 

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Image credits: Disney Pixar