Would you even know this was a Pixar film without the jumping lamp at the beginning?
If you ain’t afraid when a croc’s biting you in the face, you ain’t alive.
My kids were pretty jazzed to see The Good Dinosaur, the newest release from animation titan Pixar. Well, my four-year-old certainly was. Truth be told, my one-year-old doesn’t really get excited unless he’s destroying something. But we all wore different dino-related shirts today, got our tickets, and settled in. We saw trailers for some truly execrable movies passing themselves off as “for the kids;” about 15 seconds into the ad for the next Chipmunk thing, I wanted to make like Jessica Jones’s Kilgrave and order the little bastards to walk directly into a wood chipper. And that wasn’t even the worst. Norm of the North looks like literal garbage and any parent who takes their offspring to see it is actively harming them and should be reported.
Anyway, Dinosaur. When you put it up against what passes as acceptable for the impressionable young mind grapes of the next generation, it’s sweet and sincere and stunningly animated. I certainly don’t envy Dinosaur’s production team for having to follow up Inside Out, widely regarded by many — including me — as a flat-out masterpiece, especially just a few short months later. And I do want to be clear about one thing, whatever follows: saying The Good Dinosaur is one of Pixar’s very worst releases isn’t actually saying it’s a bad movie. (Cars 2 was a bad movie, and I’d argue the only one that qualifies.) But there’s very little here that doesn’t feel lifted wholesale from other, better things; it desperately lacks the thematic complexity that the studio is known for. It flickers, but never catches flame.
The initial conceit is moderately clever: imagine that the asteroid or meteor or whatever that was destined to wipe out the dinosaurs just…missed? And life went on? ** And the great lizards taught themselves agriculture? The story’s actual hook is even better: it’s a “boy and his beast” story, where the boy is a dinosaur and the beast is a human boy. I get the impression that these two ideas were all that emerged from the film’s original production process, a tortured, public affair that saw director Bob Peterson removed in 2013, replaced by first-timer Pete Sohn.
(**Any film under the Disney banner that starts with “65 Million Years Ago” is courting controversy, so I appreciate Pixar doubling down with the Hindu-themed short “Sanjay’s Super Team” preceding the feature. I suppose if you’ve already brought your kids to see a movie with cave people, you shouldn’t mind a little further cultural education.)
Pixar films going through creative upheaval are nothing new. Sometimes it turns out beautifully, like when Brad Bird stepped in to save a floundering Ratatouille. Occasionally what was once a great idea gets taken behind the woodshed and shot, like the intriguing-but-doomed Newt. Pixar values story over everything, and it’s a core attribute of the company that if they don’t feel like they can tell one well, they won’t tell it. So when it was announced that not only was The Good Dinosaur getting a new director, but a new cast and a new release date (it was supposed to come out last year), hopes were high that whatever re-tooling that was happening behind the scenes would result in a stronger film.
Unfortunately, Dinosaur has most in common with 2012’s Brave, another troubled project that was lauded for its visuals but not for its clearly underdeveloped script. Sohn and his four other (credited) writers, whether because of logistical pressure or otherwise, have made their story almost as simple as possible. There’s a family, there’s a tragic event, there’s a protagonist off on his own who has to overcome his fears and get home. That’s it. One-note characters pass through the narrative, but the beats are predictable, and when Arlo — our young apatosaur voiced by Raymond Ochoa — crests the final hill, it’s less about his accomplishment and character growth than a shrugging “well, I guess the movie’s over now.”
There can be beauty in simplicity, and in quiet — look no further than the first act of WALL-E. But where that film cleverly revealed the history of an entire world in just a few shots, Dinosaur runs into the same internal logic problems as the Cars series. So some of these dinos can farm and build shelters and grain silos, but others live normally, and some are apparently cowboys who say things like “let’s ride” even though no one is riding anything? The scenes with only Arlo and “Spot” (as he dubs the feral, ferocious man-cub he has adopted) are the film’s strongest, because they communicate deeper emotional ideas almost without dialogue. Spot (Jack Bright) is fun; he growls, he howls, he pants, and he scratches his head with his foot. He reminds me of my own toddler. Spot is fierce, and indefatigable; Arlo is a wet blanket. But they bond, and their mutual recognition of the other’s losses hits home.
Often, the stark beauty of the film’s photorealistic landscapes speak for themselves, as the score from Jeff & Mychael Danna clues us in that what we’re actually watching is a Western, which is another nice idea that goes unexplored beyond a surface level. But as the narrative digressions add up — the dippy Pteranodon gang led by Steve Zahn, or the family of rumbly T-Rexes led by Sam Elliott (because who better?) — the blander and less disciplined the whole affair feels. Some of the attempts at comedy fall flat, and the few moments that truly come out of left field, like when Arlo and Spot eat some berries and go on a little trip straight out of Dumbo’s “Pink Elephants,” are too brief and far-between. (That’s my pull quote — “THE GOOD DINOSAUR: I liked it when they did drugs!”) After the fourth or fifth time we’ve seen Arlo tumble off a cliff, we start to feel almost as punished as he does.
I say “almost,” of course, because at the end of the day this is still Pixar, and they’re still competent, and the animation in Dinosaur is perhaps their most technically accomplished to date. The trees, rivers, and mountains look absolutely real; I shudder to think of the computing power needed to pull it all off. While the character designs fall on the side of “cartoony,” I stopped thinking about the disparity between the round-faced Arlo and his detailed, dangerous physical world a few minutes into it. (There’s a cool shot near the end, you’ll know it when you see it, that’s like an upside-down Jaws.) It shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s a pity the script wasn’t as successful. Your kids will enjoy it, but you’ll walk away wondering what might have been.
Updated Pixar Rankings:
2. Toy Story 2
3. The Incredibles (my personal favorite)
4. Monsters, Inc.
5. Inside Out
8. Toy Story 3
9. Finding Nemo
10. Toy Story
11. Monsters University
12. A Bug’s Life
15. The Good Dinosaur
16. Cars 2