Director: Peter Sohn
Starring: Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Sam Elliot, Anna Paquin, Steve Zahn
2015 was a unique year for a number of reasons, one of them being that we got two Pixar films. Breaking their one film per year pattern, with the release of The Good Dinosaur, the studio’s 16th feature animation, 2015 became the first two-Pixar-film year. But rather than this being a bonus gift just in time for the holidays, it is the result of a troubled production that saw the film’s release pushed back from 2013, the original director replaced and a screenplay seemingly written by committee. As such, after the wonderfully imaginative Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur is in every way Pixar’s second film of 2015.
The Good Dinosaur starts with a simple premise: what if, 65 million years ago, the meteorite that was supposed to crash into the Earth and wipe out the dinosaurs had missed? Naturally, the dinosaurs would have remained Earth’s dominant creatures and, over the course of a few million years, evolved into a sophisticated agrarian society.This lifestyle is effectively depicted without getting too Flintstones. The herbivores become farmers, the carnivores become ranchers.
Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) is the runt of a family of corn farming Apatosaurus who live in the shadow of Claw Tooth Mountain. Significantly smaller than his brother and sister, Arlo is easily spooked and struggles to contribute around the farm and to make his mark on the world. One day, while trying to chase away a critter that has been raiding their corn store, Arlo falls into a rapid river and gets washed way downstream, far from his home and family, leaving him no option but to make a long and treacherous journey through a landscape where everything terrifies him.
But Arlo is not alone on this journey. His companion is the “critter,” a young human boy, who he names Spot (Jack Bright). A primitive human not capable of speech, Spot scrambles around on all fours, growling and snarling, and doing his best to both protect and provide for the hopeless Arlo. With this pairing, The Good Dinosaur takes on the dynamic of a boy-and-dog story, except with the boy being a dinosaur and the dog being a boy. Pixar has always been good at character dynamics, so while Arlo is not as engaging a protagonist as some of their previous leads, the relationship between him and Spot is tenderly represented. The fact that Spot doesn’t speak gives director Peter Sohn a chance to do what Pixar does best: to tell the story and develop the relationship through images rather than words. Nowhere is this more powerfully achieved than in a touching scene where Arlo and Spot, without words, share with each other their stories of loss and separation from their respective families.
While The Good Dinosaur is a comparatively minor achievement for this animation studio from whom we have come to expect so much, one area in which it is truly remarkable is in its stunningly rendered digital landscapes. From large scale vistas and flowing streams to intricate images of rain drops falling on leaves, the photorealism of this animation is astonishing. You really have never seen anything like it. In contrast, the dinosaurs themselves are quite cartoonish, though you would imagine that if they were as realistically depicted as the landscapes they would likely be far too frightening for small children.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t live up to the breathtaking scenery in which it takes place. The narrative itself is very familiar, with different elements derivative of former Disney classics like The Lion King and The Jungle Book. More problematic than that, however, is the inconsistency of the film, an unsurprising by-product of its interrupted production. The Good Dinosaur seems to be targeting a younger audience than is Pixar’s usual demographic. With a very simple story and cartoonish characters, this feels like a children’s film more so than a family film. Yet in spite of this, The Good Dinosaur features some of the darker, more frightening images and ideas to appear in Pixar films. Partly this is character driven. Arlo is afraid of everything, so because we are seeing the world from his perspective everything is a bit scary. But there are some moments which aren’t as easily explained. At one point Arlo sits with a group of Tyrannosaurus Rex buffalo ranchers telling campfire stories. One talks of the time he survived a crocodile attack by drowning the croc in a pool of his own blood. In another scene Arlo and Spot get intoxicated from eating fermented fruit. Moments like these don’t fit comfortably with the rest of the film and suggest the lack of a clear vision of who this story is for.
Despite its ups and downs, The Good Dinosaur is sweet and simple little tale with a basic message which just lacks that all-out creativity and originality that we have come to expect from Pixar, and therefore falls victim to the incredibly high standards that studio has set for itself.
The Good Dinosaur is preceded in cinemas by a very touching and obviously personal short film called Sanjay’s Super Team. Quite different to Pixar’s previous shorts, the film tells the story of a young boy more fascinated by morning cartoons than his father’s Hindu traditions.
Review by Duncan McLean
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