"The Good Dinosaur" is a somewhat strange, yet completely heartwarming, coming-of-age tale about an adolescent Apotosaurus named Arlo and his human companion, Spot. In many ways, it's Pixar's most ambitious film yet.
Director Peter Sohn has invited us into a visually stunning world, one that would make even the biggest, scariest dinosaur look tiny. He doesn't hide what the world truly is: a big beautiful, dangerous place where terrible things sometimes happen -- like the unexpected death of someone you love.
The relationship between Arlo and Spot is the emotional core of the film, but it's Arlo's scenes with his Poppa that carry the most weight. Arlo is the runt of his family. His siblings, Libby and Buck, have already made their mark on the family farm, but Arlo can't seem to move past his fears of, well, everything. But Poppa never gives up on him.
"As a father myself, what I responded to, and what I respected, in Poppa was that he was patient," Jeffrey Wright, who voices Poppa in the film, told MTV News. "Not only with Arlo, but also with himself. He recognized that his son had certain limitations, and also strengths, but he as well had limitations. It's a lesson that parents learn and relearn repeatedly with their children, knowing how to get the best out of them without overdoing it and imposing their own expectations."
Poppa is kind, understanding and patient, so of course he meets a gut-wrenching end. (This is a Disney Pixar movie, which means there will always be tears and at least one parental death.)
Early in the movie, Poppa dies -- in tragic circumstances that are very similar to Mufasa's traumatizing death in "The Lion King" -- protecting Arlo during a raging storm. (But not before giving Arlo one last "everything is going to be OK, son"-look, which just drove the knife even deeper into our chests.) Like Simba before him, Arlo must learn to be a man without his father.
"I was watching this with my kids, and we were all barely holding on, wetting our popcorn with tears," Wright said. "After [Poppa's death] my 14-year-old son, who was sitting next to me, put his head on my shoulder. It was a very moving experience for us, as I think it will be for any parent or child."
Poppa's death, while heartbreaking, shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to a Pixar novice. Wright, however, was blissfully unaware of his character's fate when he signed on to be part of the film, despite all of the warning signs. (Warning sign #1: voicing the young protagonist's kind, lovable father.)
"As my 14-year-old son likes to tell me from time to time, 'Dad, I've got to educate you in pop culture because there's a lot you don't know,'" the actor said. "Basically, my kids are my experts on Pixar. I've seen all of the movies as well, but these movies are so much a part of their exposure to pop culture, and so meaningful to them in that way, that I just defer to them. In fact, when I was first asked to be part of this, I consulted with them."
Shortly after his father's death, Arlo is separated from his family. Hundreds of miles away from his home in the Claw Tooth Mountains, Arlo has to come to terms with his father's death while overcoming his fears of the world.
"There's a little too much value placed in fear," Wright said. "We're driven too often in our society by fear. Fear is a healthy thing so long as it's in ration proportion and it's managed. Someone who's fearless is a danger to everyone, including him or herself."
"For me, the most pointed moment was when Arlo adheres the lessons of his father and the longing that he experiences for his father's presence and his father's touch," Wright added. "That was really striking for me. I don't recall a moment, for me, that was so moving in any other Pixar film. Obviously, I'm slightly closer to this one than the others, and maybe somewhat biased, but that was devastating."
During the film's climatic scene, Arlo sees his father again. At first, he believes his father is alive, but then he realizes that he's talking to nothing more than a memory. Ghost Poppa reminds Arlo, "You're me and more." The powerful line of dialogue struck a chord with Wright, a father of two.
"It's an expression of encouragement and proportion, right?" Wright said. "Because the product of good parenting is an individual who knows himself or herself, who is influenced, ideally positively, by their family, but goes on a journey of self discovery so that they can stand on their own two feet and experience the world. We're all products of our parents, but if we never make the break from their mold into creating our own mold, then I think, sadly, our parents have failed us. Poppa, in his dinosaur wisdom, understands that."
"He's like, 'I don't want you to be me. I don't want you to be a replication of me. I want you, like me, to be a man -- but your own man.'"
As Arlo learns throughout his journey, fear is a part of life. It's OK to be afraid. It's how you rise above that fear that matters.