Directed by Peter Sohn
Written by Meg LaFauve
It seems rare to receive two Disney/Pixar films in the same calendar year. Since I can remember it has been my tradition to celebrate my June birthday with the release of the latest in the line of great Pixar films, but this year, we get an added treat of a fall, Holiday Pixar release, The Good Dinosaur. And while it could, and has been, argued that Pixar has declined with its recent releases, not releasing great work as consistently as it has in the past, instead delivering perfectly entertaining, but otherwise underwhelming and bland work. Many have called 2015’s earlier release, Inside Out, one of the animated production companies very best, hoping for a resurrection in the sustained greatness of the Pixar product. Indeed, Inside Out is one of my favorite releases so far this year, and the best animated film I’ve seen. However, The Good Dinosaur, with large shoes to fill, seems content delivering an underwhelming narrative.
The film went through some developmental changes along the way, including a director swap from Up’s Bob Peterson to relatively green Peter Sohn (Partly Cloudy). Pixar is great as asking the “what if” question, and with The Good Dinosaur, it asks perhaps the ultimate “what if”. What if the mass extinction of dinosaurs never happened and they continued to evolve, along with humans. Our story still takes place in the ancient past, but we see a family of dino’s portrayed as farmers, tilling the land to harvest crop to sustain them through winter. Arlo is the youngest of the family, and the most timid. Prompted by his father to “make his mark”, Arlo continually disappoints until one day he gets swept away down river in a storm. Lost and scared, Arlo finds a friend in human Spot, and between the two, they begin to make their way back to Arlo’s farm, but encounter plenty of challenges along the way.
What I found disappointing about the story was that it felt so familiar, and never really strove for imaginative breakthrough, never seeming to take the “what if” proposal any further than novelty ideas like dinosaurs farming, and herding, and doing other common human activities. We’ve seen the timid lost animal returning home before (I couldn’t stop thinking about Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey). But the narrative does manage some charm by mimicking many Western tropes. In many ways, Arlo is the good, lone man caught out West amid a wild and unlawful terrain with plenty of shady characters to avoid. I will say the film was much darker than I was expecting, especially given the very childlike character animation. The shady characters met along the way provide for some potentially frightening moments.
While the character animation was fairly childish and standard from what we have seen recently from studios like Pixar, the major breakthrough with The Good Dinosaur, and what makes it a worthwhile film to see, especially in the theater, is the landscape animation. It is a truly breathtaking work of art accomplished by the animators of this film to be able to create such realistic landscapes, terrain, and kinetic scenery. There were moments early on in the film where I wondered whether they had shot actual footage out west and laid the animation on top, that is how realistic and gorgeous the animation here was. As the film progressed, I just continued to be amazed at the ability of computer generated animation to display such realistic and amazing, beautiful footage. The Good Dinosaur is a remarkable breakthrough for the art form.
The final product manages to be the type of film that is a fun adventure story, but not a classic Pixar tale that will go down as one of their best narrative works. The lack of imagination in story was a bummer, especially since there was plenty that could be done with this story. And while I loved the thought of this being a pseudo-Western, the style is never played up enough to make it a unique take on a Pixar film, instead defaulting to well-trodden storylines and uninteresting twists and turns. The mediocre response I had to the narrative aspect of the film could not be more different from what I treasured about the technical aspects of the film. The Good Dinosaur is the type of film that may be more famous for what it manages to accomplish as opposed to the story it manages to tell, and that is disappointing because if it had married the two, it may have been one of their very best works.
*** – Good