Before it even premiered, everything I heard about The Good Dinosaur was mostly about how it was going to be a let down after Inside Out and not up to Pixar’s lofty standards. It’s a familiar narrative at this point since the past couple of years have been filled with people openly wondering if the Pixar magic is gone since Cars 2, Brave and Monsters University clearly aren’t in the same league as Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3. Is it possible, though, to simply appreciate a solid animated film and not worry about the logo at the front, be it Disney Animation, Pixar, DreamWorks, Illumination Entertainment or even Laika? Can we merely appreciate The Good Dinosaur for being an entertaining, if disjointed and imperfect adventure movie about a dinosaur and his pet human? Or does the Pixar name forever elevate our expectations and set us up for disappointment when a good dinosaur sadly fails to be a great dinosaur?
That might be Pixar’s biggest sin: The improbable run of one masterpiece after another finally came to an inevitable end. However, given the company’s track record we expect more than “merely good” Pixar movies. Good movies? Surely you jest. That’s what DreamWorks dreams of. Pixar, on the other hand, is a symbol of all that is good and pure in this world. The film industry has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But Pixar has marked the time. That bouncing lamp logo, those tears, they’re a part of our past now. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh people will come to see a Pixar movie, regardless of whether or not it’s a sequel. People will most definitely come, to infinity and beyond.
At some point along the line there, I just started lifting lines from James Earl Jones’ “People will come” Field of Dreams speech. It might not be too far off, really. To some, Pixar has been a shining light on the Hollywood hill, uniquely immune to commercial pressures, routinely producing movies which renew our collective faith in the potential of the art form, often through a combination of new technologies and very old storytelling (such as the CGI silent movie that is the first half of Wall-E). The rest of Hollywood can go to shit, but not you, Pixar. Not you too! Why did you have to make Cars 2 and Monsters University? Why are four out of your next five movies sequels? When exactly did you become so conventional?
I bring all of this up as a reminder of the baggage we bring to Pixar movies. There are perfectly enjoyable animated family movies, and then there are Pixar movies, two distinct categories that only seem similar if you’re not looking closely enough. The moment the line between those two things blurs is the moment we’ve lost something significant. Inside Out was a reminder of what exactly a Pixar movie looks like, but The Good Dinosaur feels more like an enjoyable animated family movie. Oh no! The line is blurring!
But are we so spoiled that we deny Pixar the opportunity to make something that is reliably good but not quite great? Can we just enjoy films like Brave and The Good Dinosaur on their own terms and not in comparison to the giants they were never meant to match up to?
The Good Dinosaur is built off of a classic Pixar “What If?” scenario. In this case, what if the meteor missed and the dinosaurs never went extinct? It’s a clever premise, but in execution it’s a surprisingly straight forward western riff with giant herbivores as farmers and large and small carnivores alike as cowboys and cattle rustlers. There are possibly larger scale ramifications of a world in which dinosaurs evolved and humans didn’t, but the movie is more interested in little touches like having animals we hunted to extinction being alive and well and showing how dinosaurs would use their tails, long necks and giant mouths to plow and water corn fields. Just accept it and stop trying to figure out why only dinosaurs learned how to talk.
We meet Arlo, an undersized, chronically scared Apatosaurus whose two siblings progress over the years and turn into reliable farmers. Arlo, on the other hand, can’t even feed the chickens without getting scared and screwing up. Arlo’s father offers unconditional support and patience until even he gets frustrated when Arlo botches the simple job of capturing the creature (a dog-like human boy called Spot) which has been stealing corn from the family silo. You might see where this is going…
[SPOILER WARNING] Arlo’s father dies, and it’s pretty much all Arlo’s fault. He blames the human boy they were chasing into the mountains, and when that boy returns to the farm to steal more corn Arlo chases after him. They fall into a swift river together, washed hundreds of miles away from home. From that point forward, the movie is Arlo and Spot’s journey back to the farm, which can be found if they simply follow the river and look for the only snow-tipped mountains in the region. Along the way, they encounter seemingly nice dinosaurs who are actually monsters and scary-looking T-Rexes who are actually rather helpful ranchers, voiced quite memorably by Sam Elliot, Anna Paquin and A.J. Buckley. [END SPOILER WARNING]
The story is steeped in family film traditions, probably to its overall detriment. At various points, it calls to mind The Land Before Time, The Lion King, How to Train Your Dragon, Milo and Otis and maybe even Bambi. It doesn’t aspire to the same level of insight into the human existence as something like Inside Out. Instead, it’s a fairly well-told, but simple story about overcoming your fear and grief. In true Pixar fashion there are still several moments of surprising beauty and depth which tug at your heartstrings, particularly Arlo and Spot’s dialogue-free bonding over their shared family tragedies. Sure, the script has multiple deficiencies, but why are we so quick to forget that most Pixar movies are fairly average family films that happen to have two or three magical moments which elevate things in our collective memory (e.g., Wall-E‘s first half, Up‘s word-less prologue, Toy Story 3‘s brutal ending)? That being said, The Good Dinosaur does have fewer magical moments than we’ve come to expect.
Arlo and Spot make for a lovable pair, more like a master and its slightly-more-than-intelligent-than-usual pet than a buddy duo. There are multiple laugh-out-loud moments, some of which come so out of nowhere that you might find it a bit off-putting. But what do you have against watching a dinosaur and his pet human trip on some psychotropic fruit?
There are also several genuinely tense and scary sequences, some of which caused kids in my theater to leave their seats and seek security in the arms of a nearby parent. I can see why. A circling pack of insane pterodactyls signaling their arrival by dipping their peaks beneath the clouds, like some kind of inverted version of the shark fin in Jaws, might have been one of the coolest images I’ve seen in a 2015 movie, but it was probably terrifying to all of those little kids.
But is that it? The movie has a good message about perseverance and overcoming loss. The story is simple, but fairly well told. There are some funny scenes, some scary ones. The two leads are entertaining together, and the emotional moments are sneakily effective.
Actually, yeah, that’s about it. What more do you need? As a recent listener emailed to Mark Kermode’s BBC Radio Film Review show, “Please don’t compare The Good Dinosaur with Inside Out. Comparing these two films is unfair to both. I love all the Pixar high-concept stuff, but The Good Dinosaur represents a return to the simple adventure storytelling of old. It feels like a mash-up of The Jungle Book, Lion King and Land Before Time, which is no bad thing. It more than passes the 6 laugh test, and I cried as if I were cruising at 10,000 feet. If Inside Out represents the future of Pixar, Good Dinosaur is a stunning tribute to the Disney films of old.”
There is the little matter of the animation, though. Actually, that’s a pretty big matter. Everything in this movie is animated to look near photo-realistic except for the dinosaurs, who all appear almost Gumby-like, and the humans, who look lifted from The Croods. The juxtaposition is jarring, and it can take you out of the movie, although you can adjust after a while. I will address all of that in more detail in a follow-up post.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In 2012, I almost didn’t see Brave because all the chatter pegged it as not living up to Pixar standards. If I had let that stop me I would have been robbed of seeing a perfectly enjoyable movie. Don’t make that mistake with The Good Dinosaur. This isn’t Wall-E nor is it Toy Story or Inside Out. However, it’s still a lovely family film that is worth seeing. Just think twice about taking the really little kids to see it with you.
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