It’s Not That Easy to Make Your Mark

Law and Gospel in The Good Dinosaur

Will Ryan / 9.2.22

About three weeks ago our nanny gave us the bad news. She had to stop watching our daughter early. Different parts of her schedule got switched around, so she could not continue to give me and my wife time away to work in the mornings.

It was a problem. Abby’s school didn’t start until the end of the month and so we were going to spend three weeks without childcare. Through it all, we’ve seen temper tantrums, thrown naps, blow-ups, and blow-outs; and that’s not even taking what my toddler has done into account. Just kidding … kind of.

We went into scramble mode, calling on family members and utilizing toddler play places to piecemeal our way through. We played with sand, filled the kiddie pool, went on farmer’s market runs, and rode the tricycle. All those activities are great, but not really conducive to getting any work done. There are only so many 5 AM sermons one can write or pastoral phone calls you can make with a toddler hanging around your legs. I eventually broke down.

After making it through lock-downs and quarantines, the last three weeks of summer made me resort to what I used to think was below me, something that made me “unworthy” of being a “good” parent: the TV. I mean, we BLEW by the recommended limit for screen time. We wore Disney+ out!

Throughout this time, I came to appreciate the 2015 Pixar movie, The Good Dinosaur. My daughter loves dinosaurs, so it would make sense she would want to watch it over and over. While it was termed a disappointment in the box office and through reviews, I tend to disagree. Maybe I like its rather straightforward plot, or maybe it’s the fact that the film has many Western overtones.

The simple plot and style of the movie would be enough to keep me engaged on the first, and possible second, viewing. But like I said before, my daughter loves dinosaurs, so we’ve definitely seen it more than twice. What keeps me going back — other than my daughter’s insistence and my continuing need to get work done — is the way the movie portrays how Law and Gospel play out in our lives.

The Good Dinosaur is the story of Arlo, the runt of a set of triplets. Small, nervous, and scared, he struggles to fit into his farming family. When Arlo’s Dad and Mom “make their mark” by putting a footprint on a grain bin, all the kids are eager to join in. But Henry, Arlo’s dad, says “Hold on. It’s not that easy. You’ve gotta earn your mark by doing something big, for something bigger than yourself. Someday you’ll make your mark, and I can’t wait to see it.”

This is the Law; you have to earn it. Even though Arlo’s dad displays some confidence in their ability, he leaves it up to his kids — they have to work their way into it.

First, Arlo’s brother earns his spot by clearing a field. Then, Arlo’s sister plows that same field through wind and rain. But all along the way, Arlo struggles. Arlo even fails after his dad gives him a perfect opportunity to succeed — called upon by his dad to kill a “critter” eating their stores. But what does he do instead of killing the critter? Arlo lets it go.

But Arlo’s dad won’t let it go. At the next opportunity, Arlo is dragged by his dad to chase after the critter along a dangerous river in a storm. Arlo’s dad is insistent, driving, and consistently yelling at his small son to “Keep up!” But Arlo is hurt in the chase, and seeing his son hurt causes a change in Arlo’s dad. No longer coercing and cajoling, he is comforting and caring: “I’m sorry. I was trying to help you get over your fear. I know you have it in you,” he says. Arlo responds, “I’m not like you.” In turn, his dad speaks a word of grace over him, “You’re me and more.”

Tragedy strikes, as it does, and Arlo’s father dies. When the critter reappears on the farm, Arlo chases it but accidentally falls into the river. He is knocked out and washes up on a strange shore.

Arlo, now lost, spends the rest of the movie trying to get back home. He makes a friend along the way and the movie seems to be about their bond. But it’s not. It’s about Arlo coming to believe in the words said over him by his father. He is his father and more, more than worthy of making his mark. It takes an adventure, and a good knock to the head, for Arlo to realize and understand the courage and strength imputed to him by his father.

By the end of the movie, when he struts his way back to the farm, Arlo is a changed dinosaur (or at least it appears that way to everyone). His mom even mistakes him for his dad! But if Arlo’s dad was telling the truth, and I think he was, we know that Arlo is just living into what was already always true. His mark is put on the tower, but if we’re honest, he didn’t really deserve to do it. He didn’t really do anything big for anyone else, save for the critter who was ticketed for death and had his own storybook ending. No, he was made worthy by his father, a gift given and a gift finally received.

It’s an illustration of the grace we are given by Christ, who died that we might live. We are made worthy by him.

Now we’ve come to the end. Abby is back at school and I’m back to work trying to balance being a good parent and a good minister. It’s a struggle even when one has adequate childcare. But at least now, having been reminded over and over by Arlo, my worthiness is in much better hands than my own.

P.S. I know it was simply a slight oversight Todd Brewer left this off his list of Pixar movies!

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