The Good Dinosaur
Pixar stumbles following after a (dinosaur) boy and his (human) dog
The Good Dinosaur (2015)
Directed by Peter Sohn
Cast: Jeffrey Wtight, Frances McDormand, Sam Elliot
Disney/Pixar already gave us Inside Out this year, a funny, inventive, wise and terribly emotional animated classic—easily one of the best of 2015. So it seems unreasonably greedy to expect the animation giant to come up with another great film in the same calendar year. In the case of The Good Dinosaur, that hunch proves true.
As those with a little inside knowledge of the movie industry are aware, The Good Dinosaur is a notoriously troubled production. Pixar has been working on it for six years and has pushed release dates several times. The writer, director and producer were all replaced at various points. The original voice cast was dumped. And the script was rewritten from the ground up. But you don’t have to be privy to all this backstage information to realize rather quickly that The Good Dinosaur is one of Pixar’s lesser efforts.
Of course, saying that amounts to faint damnation. In its 30-odd years of existence, Pixar Animation Studio has produced dozens of beloved family favorites (from Toy Story to Finding Nemo) with hardly a clinker in the lot (Cars 2 is about as close as the company has come). There are plenty of things about The Good Dinosaur that are admirable. It does cute and pretty very well. It’s just one of the ... less complicated films you’re likely to see from the studio in terms of plot and character concept.
The story starts by speculating what the Earth would be like if that legendary asteroid hadn’t slammed into our planet billions of years ago. Hence, we get a world in which talking dinosaurs and primitive humans live side by side. (Though it sounds like a concept intelligent design advocates would heartily embrace, fundamentalist Christians in the audience will surely be frightened off by the Hindu-themed cartoon short attached to the front of the film.)
Our main protagonist in this “Flintstones”-esque world is Arlo (young Raymond Ochoa from Disney XD’s “Pair of Kings”), the runt of a litter belonging to Momma and Poppa Apatosaurus (Frances McDormand and Jeffrey Wright). Poor little Arlo is afraid of his own shadow and unsuited for nearly every job around the family farm. He’s mostly in charge of feeding the chickens, but usually ends up running away from them. Poppa tries to make a man out of Arlo, mostly by spouting aphorisms like “Make your mark” and “Face your fears.” Unfortunately, Arlo remains a scaredy cat and ends up contributing heavily to his own father’s death and to the rest of his family’s possible starvation.
Poppa’s untimely passing leads in a roundabout way to Arlo falling into a raging river and getting swept away from his home. Hopelessly lost in the wilderness, he quickly adopts (or is adopted by) a feral caveman boy (boy caveman? caveboy?) whom he names “Spot.” Spot proves to be a most resourceful companion, getting Arlo out of various scrapes and leading him on the journey home. Without speaking a word (he only communicates in grunts and growls), the wild-haired toddler steals the show from Arlo—who, to be frank, isn’t a very compelling protagonist. He’s a whiney little incompetent whose biggest accomplishment is not dying over the course of the next 60 minutes of screen time—and that’s due almost entirely to the efforts of his pet Neanderthal.
The biggest problem with The Good Dinosaur, however, is it lacks a strong, clear vision. That’s something of a rarity for a Pixar film. Normally, they’re meticulously rendered down to the tiniest detail. This one does look stunning. The CG-animation is technically brilliant. The photorealistic depictions of primeval nature are next-level stuff. But the dinosaurs themselves are overly cartoonish, big-eyed blobs with little character—a real mismatch with the vivid backgrounds. The plot—credited at this point to five storytellers and one screenwriter—is nothing more than a point A to point B road movie. Arlo travels to his home and runs into a bunch of random encounters along the way. The end.
The tone is occasionally quite amusing. Kids and adults will surely find laughs, mostly when our mismatched heroes cross paths with oddball characters. But the film never really figures out a consistent style. At one point it becomes an honest-to-goodness Western with Sam Elliott as a Tyrannosaurus Rex cowboy fighting off evil cattle rustlers. (Now that I actually write it down, it sounds like a weird dream I had once.) Younger kids are probably the best target audience for this linear, largely nonverbal adventure tale—which makes the decision to include so much death and destruction rather confusing.
Is it really an insult to say something is one of Pixar’s least good efforts? Perhaps The Good Dinosaur just has more to live up to following in the wake of the in-all-ways superior Inside Out. The Good Dinosaur is still quality family entertainment and far better than the efforts of most animation studios. It’s just not great—and for Pixar, less than great is a major drop in quality.