Pixar's orphan movie "The Good Dinosaur" has a new parent — and a new story.
First-time feature director Peter Sohn, an artist at the studio in Emeryville, Calif., since 2000, unofficially took over the film a few months after Pixar executives removed its first director, Bob Peterson, amid creative concerns in the summer of 2013.
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Over the last year, Sohn has been quietly streamlining the story, a buddy comedy about a teenage dinosaur and a human boy, in preparation for a November 2015 release.
"The heart of the story remains the same," Sohn said, in an interview last week. "It's always been about this young dinosaur growing up. But the world itself has changed a lot. Nature has become a character."
Director changes are relatively common in animation in general, where multi-year production schedules can test a person's creative and managerial stamina, and at Pixar in particular, where "The Good Dinosaur" was the fourth of the studio's last eight films to see a swap.
But the midstream move caused a cascade of headaches for Pixar and for its parent company, Walt Disney Co., which pushed "The Good Dinosaur's" release date back 18 months from May of 2014.
The timing change left Pixar without a 2014 film, bumped Andrew Stanton's anticipated "Finding Nemo" sequel, "Finding Dory," to 2016 and caused the company to lay off 50 employees.
"For Pixar it was a dramatic event," said Jim Morris, the studio's general manager and executive vice president of production. "It was tough on the company. Most studios would have said, 'The movie's fine. It's not bad.' And it wasn't bad; it just wasn't great. We wanted to have a great movie."
At the time, Pixar's leadership, including studio president Ed Catmull, felt Peterson was creatively stuck on the film and was proving too slow to make important story decisions. Sohn had been serving as Peterson's co-director, a position akin to that of a deputy at Pixar.
As in Peterson's version, the film still posits that an asteroid never hit the Earth and the dinosaurs never went extinct; a teenage Apatosaurus named Arlo takes a wild, young human boy named Spot as a pet.
Sohn has jettisoned some of Peterson's signature ideas, such as modeling the dinosaurs on Amish farmers, and added new elements, including treating nature as the film's antagonist.
"When Bob was taken off, I was supporting the film as best I could," Sohn said. "It felt like, this child, this film still needs to be raised. It was just about how to take care of the thing at that time. ... Trying to keep the original vision of this film intact and trying to plus it as well."
In taking over the film, Sohn, 37, becomes part of a new generation of directors succeeding Stanton, Pete Docter and "Toy Story 3" director Lee Unkrich, all of whom are in their late 40s.
Born in the Bronx to Korean immigrants, Sohn got a summer job working on Brad Bird's 1999 animated cult classic "Iron Giant" while studying animation at the California Institute of the Arts.
At Pixar, Sohn distinguished himself in the art, story and animation departments, directed the 2009 short film "Partly Cloudy" and became known around the studio for his wide-eyed, ebullient demeanor. Sohn has even inspired a Pixar character — Russell, the enthusiastic boy wilderness explorer in the movie "Up."
"He has this warm, open, innocent view of the world which he channels well into humor," Morris said of Sohn.
Sohn got the "Good Dinosaur" job after he presented a possible new version of the film in storyboards last summer, according to producer Denise Ream.
Because of Sohn's relative inexperience, Ream enlisted some of Pixar's veteran department heads to help him finish "The Good Dinosaur," including production designer Harley Jessup and director of photography-lighting Sharon Calahan, both of whom lent "Ratatouille" much of its visual richness (incidentally, that successful 2007 film was another of Pixar's controversial director changes, from the idea's originator, Jan Pinkava, to Bird).
Peterson remains at Pixar and, according to Morris, has been working on Docter's next film, "Inside Out," and on "Finding Dory" as a writer. He declined to comment for this story.
"Being a director in animation is a lot harder," Morris said. "By the time you get to the set in live action, you've got your actors, your location. You've got a crew assembled. In animation, you've got to build everything. You don't get anything for free — the beautiful sunset or the improvisational moment of the actors. You don't really know until somebody's in the director's chair whether it's going to work out."