Last fall, the once seemingly infallible Pixar had to admit it could make mistakes. The animation powerhouse had to postpone the release of its planned summer 2014 blockbuster The Good Dinosaur, which had been in development since 2011,by a full year — to November 2015. At the time, the studio was cagey about the exact reasons for the reasons for the delay, apart from acknowledging that original director, Bob Peterson, had been reassigned and replaced by his co-director, Peter Sohn. Otherwise, the movie shuffled back into the company’s toy chest, to be worked over by its vaunted Brain Trust, a think tank of talent that reportedly includes such Pixar lifers as John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter.
Now, one of The Good Dinosaur's A-list cast members, John Lithgow, has opened a tiny but revealing crack in that toy-chest lid. In an interview with the entertainment site Collider, the actor revealed that he’ll soon be heading back into the recording studio to reprise his role for an all-new version of the story. “I recorded the entire role in Good Dinosaur. They have now dismantled it and completely reimagined it, and it is a fantastic new story. So I’m gonna record again on it within the next month. Don’t worry. It’s coming and it’s gonna be better than I ever imagined.”
The one thing that remains the same, Lithgow added, is that he’s still voicing the Apatosaurus father of the titular good dino, with Frances McDormand playing his lizard bride. What he didn’t say, however, was if any of his on-screen saurian brood survived the Brain Trust culling; Bill Hader, Judy Greer, Neil Patrick Harris and Lucas Neff were all part of the Lithgow/McDormand clan the first time around, but there’s a chance that one or more of them may meet with an errant meteor or that hungry Tyrannosaurs from The Land Before Time.
It should be remembered, though, that the studio has been through this particular cycle before — as far back as the original Toy Story. That movie famously courted disaster following an apocalyptic 1993 test screening for its Disney backers, forcing first-time feature director Lasseter to send the entire creative team back to the factory, eventually emerging with the hit that transformed the animation industry. Toy Story 2 similarly underwent a lot of tinkering and became one of the textbook examples of sequels that surpass the original.
But the most relevant story to The Good Dinosaur is the case of Ratatouille, where the original creator, Jan Pinkava, was replaced by Brad Bird a mere 18 months shy of the movie’s 2007 release date. “I was finally on a vacation that summer,” Bird (who directed 2004’s The Incredibles) told Entertainment Weekly about how the assignment came his way. “Two days into it, I got a call from [Pixar honcho] Steve Jobs. A day later, I got a call from John [Lasseter] and Ed [Catmull, who were then running Pixar]. Even though they didn’t say, ”Come back from your vacation right now,” suddenly my vacation was full of worry.” Bird made a number of dramatic changes to Pinkava’s original story — and handpicked the movie’s star, Patton Oswalt — before embarking on a rapid-fire year-long production process. Ratatouille earned Pixar some of its best reviews and its third Best Animated Feature Oscar.
Of course, for every Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille, there’s a case like Brave, where Pixar’s revolving carousel of talent and story fixes resulted in a movie that may have been a commercial success, but was arguably something of a creative disappointment. The anti-Disney princess fairy tale was the brainchild of Brenda Chapman, who mined her relationship with her own daughter for inspiration. But in a move that shocked both her and the rest of the industry, Pixar took its first female director off her own movie two years into production, tapping Mark Andrews to replace her. Although Brave cleared the $200 million bar at the box office and nabbed an Oscar, Chapman’s exit left a bad taste in the mouths of many. Chapman herself departed Pixar in the wake of Brave and wrote a New York Times op-ed two months after the movie’s release in which she described the experience as a “heartbreakingly hard road.”
Still, many Pixar fans are hoping that Lithgow’s promises of “a fantastic new story” are on the money, and that the retrofitted Good Dinosaur lives up to its title. Pixar’s working methods have certainly proven successful enough in the past to want to give them the benefit of the doubt this time around. And it’s not like Pixar is in imminent danger of extinction, even if The Good Dinosaur can’t be salvaged; they’ve got Docter’s next film, Inside Out, due out next summer and the Nemo sequel Finding Dory in June 2016. Of course, it was a lot easier to believe in their creative invincibility when their filmography had more movies like Up and Wall-E — and fewer like Cars 2 and Monsters University.