There are a lot of films released every year that, despite no apparent connection, often cover similar stories, themes, or ideas. It’s a small world with a finite number of stories, which might help explains these Mirrored Movies.
Sometimes when coming up with ideas for this column (I have more pairings written down than I’ve actually written out) I really have to work at making connections, and usually a while after I’ve seen the pairing in question. This is the first time the connection hit me in the middle of the movie. It was around the time Hugh Glass was slipping into a river to get away from some vengeful Arikara warriors that I saw Arlo the dinosaur getting carried downstream in a bad storm. Maybe it was a little before that, but the exact moment doesn’t matter. What matters is that when the idea entered my head I was suddenly experiencing The Revenant in a very different way.
Broken down to a log line, both movies have a surprising amount in common. Not just in the common beats of survival stories, but in specific details, like taking place in the Northwestern mountains, having protagonists who are grieving a loved one, and prominently featuring a river that acts as a catalyst for the hero’s journey. On the subject of their setting, it’s fitting that the weather reflects their core philosophies. The Good Dinosaur is a summer movie, full of clear skies, growing crops, and summer storms which, intense and challenging as they may be, are short. The sun always comes out in the end. The sun makes a few appearances in The Revenant, but the days are short in winter, and everything is dark and cold and dying. The terrain of The Revenant is harsh and full of sharp rocks, while everything in The Good Dinosaur has soft, rounded edges. The movies are closely mirrored, but it’s a mirror that’s warped and cracked.
This philosophical dichotomy extends to the films’ villains, as well. Aggressive as they are, the overzealous pterodactyls of The Good Dinosaur are part of the natural order. They are scavengers, and their feeding on the weak and the wounded is something that makes big picture sense. They serve a necessary function, unpleasant as it may seem to our kind-hearted protagonist. The dark turn for Tom Hardy’s Fitzpatrick is purposeless, and therefore monstrous. There is an obscure balance to the chaos of nature – a method to the madness, to use an overused phrase – and Fitzpatrick ignores that balance.
Which is something that unites our protagonists, after a fashion. In many ways Hugh and Arlo are opposites, but in a sort of Lincoln/Kennedy fashion, where they’re strangely complementary. Arlo is a child who loses his father, Hugh is a father who loses his son; Arlo is a farmer, Hugh is a hunter. Most interestingly, their character arcs move in opposite directions, crossing over at a shared low point. Arlo begins the movie completely petrified of the world around him, and through his adventures learns confidence and bravery, gaining peace of mind. Hugh starts out as a regular mountain man with a pretty solid life, but as the film kicks him around Hugh becomes more feral, losing his sense of self to animal instincts.
Despite the different places their journeys take them, Arlo and Hugh share a strikingly similar path. As mentioned above, both are swept away by swift rivers and fall through treacherous rapids. Both befriend natives who have lost their families and who share food that they’ve hunted, giving the protagonist sustenance at a critical juncture. Both make unlikely allies after attacking a band of poachers, and both have dreams while trapped in tree branches where they meet their recently deceased family. In keeping with their opposite arcs, Arlo’s dream walk with his father* gives him closure and a renewed sense of purpose, while Hugh’s encounter with his son leaves him sad and angry.
(SPOILERS FOR BOTH MOVIES’ ENDINGS)
Most striking of the philosphically-divergent similarities between Hugh and Arlo’s stories comes at the films’ ends. In both climaxes, the protagonist is fighting their nemesis on the bank of a river, and both sequences end with the villain floating downstream toward their death. Arlo attacks the pterodactyls in a bid to save his little caveboy friend, tearing a hole in the leader’s wing. Even if Arlo didn’t plan on the wounded pterodactyl falling into the river to be dragged over an immense waterfall, he had to realize that an injury like that is fatal to an airborne scavenger. It’s direct, decisive action, and one that Arlo apparently feels justified about, given his ability to return to his old life. Hugh comes just short of killing Fitzgerald with his bare hands in an incredibly bloody fist fight before deciding that revenge is ignoble, and instead shoves him into the river and toward the group of Arikara, who immediately scalp him. It should be a cathartic moment for Hugh, but the continued presence of his ghostly wife indicates a still troubled mind.
It’s not unusual for multiple films to come out in one year that cover similar thematic ground, or tell a similar story, but what makes this pairing of The Revenant and The Good Dinosaur special is they way they represent such opposite extremes at identical story beats. They are a perfect complement, right on down to the extra-textual detail of troubled production histories. The Good Dinosaur went through a long pre-production process, cycling through directors and writers and cast members all in the confines of Emeryville, California, while The Revenant had one of those Sets From Hell, with a singular vision carrying a cast and crew through sub-freezing temperatures and a global search for snow. Critics and audiences weighed in, and the results were a lower-tier Pixar flop and a higher-tier AGI smash. The two movies will likely never be thought of together again, but there’s something in the chocolate of The Good Dinosaur‘s hopeful optimism mixing with The Revenant‘s peanut butter of angry vengeance that makes both movies work better together.
*In a micro-mirrored moment, Arlo realizes he is in a dream when he notices that his father leaves no tracks at he walks, which is also how, in Disney’s earlier 2015 film Tomorrowland, the protagonist realizes the vicious German Shepherd guarding a house is a hologram.