by Matt McKenna
The Good Dinosaur is the latest Pixar film based on an alternate history timeline in which the famed meteor that struck Earth resulting in the extinction of the dinosaurs instead zooms past our planet striking nothing. In the film, dinosaurs have happily survived for millions of years post-meteor and somewhat surprisingly evolved to speak English, develop stone-age technology, and create a culture based on nuclear families. This premise provides for an emotionally engaging narrative, and the filmmakers take full advantage of the creative license the movie’s alternate history timeline affords. While this alternate history structure works well for The Good Dinosaur, it turns out to be a misused if popular technique for spinning other kinds of yarns, especially those generated by our politicians and pundits attempting to elicit a rise out of their audience.
The Good Dinosaur is a classic Disney tale in that it is beautiful, has talking animals, and incites children’s fears about their parents’ mortality. The story follows Arlo, an undersized adolescent apatosaurus who is separated from his family and must find his way back home. Over the course of his journey, Arlo reluctantly befriends an eager caveboy who is both a source of survival wisdom for Arlo and comedic relief for the children in the audience who are likely horrified by the scarier aspects of the film. One interesting note about The Good Dinosaur is that although dinosaurs can communicate with each other via language, the caveboy cannot. This is a humorous reversal from many other animated films in which the humans have adorable mute animal sidekicks. This switcheroo is narratively coherent due to the alternate history timeline in which the dinosaur-killing meteor never collided with Earth thus giving dinosaurs an evolutionary head start compared to their late-blooming human counterparts. I realize that’s not how evolution works, but it’s a fun idea for a children’s film anyway.
Perhaps alternate history stories like The Good Dinosaur are becoming especially fashionable as Amazon just released The Man in the High Castle, a TV show based on the eponymous Philip K. Dick novel that imagines a world where the axis powers won World War II and have seized control of America. Alternate history stories are also making appearances on TV news stations as politicians and pundits attempt to describe worlds where terrorist attacks like the San Bernardino shooting couldn’t have happened. Unfortunately, these alternate histories are far less coherent than Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur’s alternate history: If the dinosaur-destroying meteor didn’t hit Earth, it is plausible that the dinosaurs would have survived for millions more years into the future. By contrast, the proposals presented by our politicians as a way to prevent terrorist attacks wouldn’t have prevented the most recent attack in San Bernardino.
If you’re listening to Donald Trump, for example, you might hear him say that a ban on Muslims entering the country is required to keep Americans safe. Because Trump made these statements in reaction to the San Bernardino terrorist attacks, his proposal suggests that in an alternate history timeline in which America had banned Muslims from entering the country, the San Bernardino shooting couldn’t have happened. Aside from the proposal’s moral offensiveness, this premise has an obvious flaw: it wouldn’t have stopped the San Bernardino attack from occurring since the perpetrator was an American citizen born in the United States. Trump’s alternate history premise is therefore incoherent, a clear attempt to pander to his sycophants’ fears without going through the effort of making sense. It’d be as if Pixar had humans and dinosaurs coexist in The Good Dinosaur’s timeline without first addressing the meteor that caused the dinosaurs’ extinction in reality. I suppose this is why Pixar is a masterful film production group and Trump is a mere politician.
If you’re listening to a more left-leaning candidate, you’re likely to hear a different alternate history in which a ban on “assault weapons” is described as a way to avoid mass shootings such as the one in San Bernardino. While there are certainly fantastic reasons to restrict or ban the ownership of various firearms, an assault weapon ban unfortunately wouldn’t have prevented the San Bernardino shooting either. Guns designated as “assault weapons” have equally lethal alternatives such as semi-automatic handguns. In fact, most mass shootings are perpetrated by people with handguns, so banning assault rifles would serve only as a symbolic victory for people looking to reduce gun violence rather than a pragmatic one.
Comparing these two proposed solutions to preventing mass shootings doesn’t suggest an equivalency between them–clearly, it is far more offensive to ban people of a particular religion than it is to ban a gun of a particular type. However, neither ban addresses the problem of mass shootings in a way that would actually prevent the terrorist attack that just happened from happening again, which is presumably the point of the proposed bans. That these proposals are offered seriously to Americans shows the lack of respect politicians have for voters, and it is disappointing that our politicians respect their audience far less than the filmmakers of The Good Dinosaur respect theirs.