Release: Wednesday, November 25, 2015
Written by: Meg LeFauve
Directed by: Peter Sohn
Life’s pretty good if you’re a Pixar film. Contrary to the fact the ambitious animation studio is consistently held to a higher standard than the likes of DreamWorks, Blue Sky, Fox and Warner Bros. (to name a few), such an impressive track record has earned it the luxury of being able to crank out the occasional less-ambitious production without fearing a major media storm in which words like “disaster,” “major setback” or “uninspired” could comprise the headlines of the day.
Since introducing Woody and friends in the mid-90s the studio has essentially controlled its own destiny. So why shouldn’t it be allowed to conjure something that, narratively speaking, doesn’t aspire to classic status? I haven’t seen everything the studio has put out, not even close, but I feel comfortable suggesting that Cars 2 looks forward to greater replay value than, say, Hotel Transylvania 2. After all, the one constant that can be found in these films is the visual grandeur. In fact Hayao Miyazaki’s team of impossibly talented artists over at Studio Ghibli seem to be the only ones interested in giving Pixar a legitimate run for its money.
I don’t mean to suggest Pixar should ever become complacent though. With its latest adventure, The Good Dinosaur, a charming tale focusing on a family of green apatosauruses, there is an undeniable emphasis on graphics rendering over narrative construction. It tells of Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), an unconfident and wobbly-kneed youngster trying to make his way back home after falling in a river in his attempts to fend off an intruder in the form of feral child Spot (aw, how cute! — no, wait; he’s going to eat these dinosaurs out of house and home . . . not cute).
The Good Dinosaur theorizes something pretty radical: what if the meteor that wiped out these prehistoric beasts never actually hit Earth? In this scenario, millions of years on, dinosaurs not only still exist but dominate the landscape, and have developed to the point of being able to articulate their thoughts and verbally communicate with one another. Arlo’s family happen to be efficient farmers. They place high value on working hard and loving one another, with Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand) encouraging their three offspring to make their mark — a literal mud-print on the side of their stone silo — by doing something for the family and not just themselves.
Inevitably Arlo and Spot become reluctant traveling companions as Arlo starts to realize his enemy might actually be of help in getting back home. In practical terms, he recalls the advice of his father: as long as he follows the river he’ll find his way, but in this harsh, unpredictable and ultimately impossibly beautiful environment Arlo could use the company. He often benefits from Spot’s defensive nature and knack for finding sustenance. In a brilliantly crafted scene that sees the pair mourning — with almost no dialogue — their respective home lives, Arlo learns the little boy is also desperate for companionship.
The Good Dinosaur boils down to a generally well-intentioned though considerably flawed protagonist having to confront his deepest fears and ultimately overcome them. As the film expands, the meteor strike that never was turns out to be a footnote rather than a headline. It’s nothing if not a convoluted way to justify talking dinos and the role reversal between humans and prehistoric reptiles.
We get the requisite subplot that obliges Arlo to put others’ needs in front of his own (just as Poppa had encouraged him to do). A trio of Tyrannosaurus Rex, led by Sam Elliot’s intrepid Butch, ends up rescuing the pair from some insane pterodactyls. Arlo pays it forward by helping them recover a herd of long-horned bison they had lost track of. In the process, he gets one step closer to being back in familiar territory.
As an audience we never truly leave familiar territory behind. We’ve seen this story replayed dozens of times before, and within the Pixar universe. Thankfully, the photorealistic backdrop goes a long way in compensating. As per usual, the world is fully realized and completely immersive. Throughout our journey we come across creatures both friend and foe, bare witness to spectacular sunrises that crest the jagged peaks of Teton-esque mountain ranges, and weather severe storms that manifest as some of the film’s most unforgiving antagonists.
In keeping with tradition, almost everything you see on screen is a character unto itself, with some becoming far more memorable than others. Arlo comes in a close second behind the curious little Spot, who is very difficult not to fall in love with come the tear-jerking conclusion. I’m willing to forgive the film it’s few shortcomings because, and I reiterate, this isn’t proof of Pixar forgetting how to tell sophisticated stories. This is proof the studio knows there are different ways to express sophistication.
Recommendation: This isn’t a film that satisfies both halves of its audience in equal measure. Adults aren’t going to share in their children’s giddiness in the same way they did with Pixar’s earlier 2015 offering but there’s more than enough here for those with more matured palettes to feel comfortable kicking back and basking in the technical achievements made possible by the advent of superior graphics rendering software. And while the story isn’t the most ambitious, The Good Dinosaur is still a beautiful film in more ways than one.
Running Time: 93 mins.
Quoted: “The storm provides!”
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