Perhaps Pixar should stick to releasing one film a year. While June’s Inside Out is easily the best children’s film of the year, the beloved animation studio has made a rare dud with The Good Dinosaur.
The film starts by rewriting history. As dinosaurs are roaming around Earth, munching on plants and doing general dino-business, the giant meteor that we all know killed the dinosaurs just misses our plant. Millions of years later, we begin our story with a new family of farming dinos. These apatosauruses (or brontosauruses, depending on how picky you want to get) grow corn in what looks like the American Southwest. They use their strength for clearing trees, and their snouts for plowing and irrigation. The family of four led a happy and quiet life between a river and majestic mountain, that is, until the father dies. The youngest dino Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), who has always been the clumsy and timid child of the family, accompanies dad out to track the wild animal, a small human boy, who has been stealing their harvest. A flash flood strikes during their pursuit and the father dies saving Arlo. Devastated, Arlo vows to avenge his father’s death, even though he is as timid as always. When the boy reappears Arlo chases him, get carried away by the river, and is lost far away from home. Marooned along with him is the boy (who’s canine like qualities lead to him being aptly named “Spot”). Arlo reluctantly pairs up with Spot to find his way home again.
The bulk of The Good Dinosaur is Arlo and Spot’s adventures trying to get home and encountering different creatures along the way. The story and plot are incredibly basic and predictable, which is unexpected given Pixar’s recent streak of thoughtful and inventive storytelling. I could easily accept a basic story structure if I believed that the film’s target is a very young audience, but the tone of certain scenes does not indicate that this would be good for young kiddos. In fact, the uneven tone of The Good Dinosaur is its greatest weakness. There are plenty of cute moments—a standout being a multiplayer game of Whack-A-Mole with a field of prehistoric tribbles—but these are offset by some violent moments that spring out of nowhere. When Spot repeatedly brings Arlo (a vegetarian by evolution) animals to eat, the montage parade of long-extinct critters is fun and bubble. Then, without warning, Spot mistakenly rips the head off of a giant beetle, to Arlo’s horror. The film’s pause after the incident lets us think that the moment was intended for laughs, but our theaters was merely confused by the lack of sensitivity to Arlo’s reaction. There are plenty of other instances which try very hard for obvious jokes, only to have the punchlines fall completely flat.
The worst misfire in The Good Dinosaur is the inclusion of a gang of villainous pterodactyls. This group of four flying dinosaurs seem to be resourceful and helpful at first, offering to help Arlo find food and shelter. As we slowly get to know them it turns out that they are brainwashed, like a cult, following “the storm” of turbulent weather around and eating its victims. The group manages to seem like a deranged group of murderous Jimmy Buffet Parrotheads, blindly following their own mythology. Their inclusion is unnecessary and redundant, as nature was already acting like the only foe Arlo needs to fight. Nature, landscape and other critters, offers plenty of obstacles and conflict for Arlo and Spot to rally against and they do not need an additional enemy.
On a related note, the animation of nature is easily the finest part of The Good Dinosaur. Every single background view in the film looks painstakingly realistic to the point where you can see each pebble and pine needle. The ever-present river shimmers and flows in such vivid realism I was questioning whether or not the characters were superimposed over traditional photography of actual sets. Arlo, and all of the creatures, look like they belong more in a Toy Story toy box than in this lush scenery, which is another disappointment. If only more care was put into animating the characters in the film. I found myself looking past the players, even during the action scenes, to marvel at the forest and mountains.
The uneven tones, basic plot, and unnecessary villains left me dissatisfied with The Good Dinosaur. If it were not for the utterly beautiful background animation this film would be a complete miss.
Director: Peter Sohn
Film Length: 93 minutes
Release Date: November 25, 2015