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Monday
Nov302015

Review: The Good Dinosaur

 

Tim here. The Good Dinosaur is, in the first place, a kids' film: not a film about kids but also somewhat for adults, like Inside Out. Or, indeed, most of what Pixar Animation Studios has produced in its 20 years of making features. In fact, even including the unabashed toy commercials of the Cars franchise, this might be the most unmixed "for the kids" movie out of the 16 films of the Pixar canon. This has translated into a lot of disappointment from a lot of people openly hoping for another film at the Inside Out level of emotional sophistication and narrative creativity, which was really never going to be in the cards; frankly, the movie doesn't seem to have any designs on that kind of sophistication.

Still, it's easy to be too harsh on the movie: simple and direct as The Good Dinosaur certainly is, it's an enormously strong version of its stock narrative.

The film is a basic boy and his dog adventure in which a pair of characters face off against a cruel natural world: the boy is a dinosaur named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), and the dog is a human boy, a feral bundle of energy that Arlo names "Spot" (Jack Bright), and the plot takes the form of Arlo's struggle to return to the family farm after he's washed into the wilderness by a river. One could start rattling off the various movies that this calls to mind, but then there'd be no room for the review left.

With a story this deeply indebted to formula, the film's success turns less on how cunningly it expresses its themes, and more about the characters we're journeying with. And The Good Dinosaur has a pair of tremendously sweet, sympathetic characters to carry it along, though the degree to which any individual viewer agrees with that assessment is going to have a lot to do with their response to the film's terribly, wonderfully strange aesthetic.

The film boasts astonishingly photorealistic backgrounds, based directly on U.S. Geological Survey topographical maps, treated with awestruck respect by director of photography Sharon Calahan, the overseer of the film's visual style. To pair with these revolutionary, like-nothing-you've-ever-seen-in-a-cartoon levels of realism, the character designs are squishy and brightly colored, more like bath toys than flesh-and-blood animals.

The gulf between the background realism and the toy-like characters is severe enough that it's already caused some of the harshest criticisms the film has received. The aesthetic is definitely an either-or proposition: if you never accept that these dinosaurs and this landscape could reasonably co-exist, the movie won't work, period. There's an argument to be made in its defense, and I'm personally sympathetic to it: the soft, sweet look of the characters makes them tremendously appealing – even a rugged Tyrannosaur with scars all over his squinty face (he's voiced, almost inevitably, by Sam Elliott) looks cute and cuddly, in his way.

The sharp realism of the natural backdrops, meanwhile, is such a severe contrast that the environment becomes foreign and nerve-wracking – it is literally a space that the characters don't fit into. And by looking so real to our eyes, the dangers plaguing Arlo are all the more palpable, and he becomes a far more sympathetic figure, since his plight feels authentic. He's in danger in a way that family film protagonists rarely ever are.

It's definitely a harsh and violent movie at times, kiddie flick or no. While the generic death of a parent that drives the narrative comes too early for the emotional upheaval to hit as well as if we'd actually gotten to know the characters' relationships well, everything thereafter is menacing and unpredictable in just the right ways, especially the introduction of a clutch of deeply unsettling and tangibly psychotic pterosaurs. Late in the film there's a scene of them stalking Arlo through a cloud bank, their head-bones poking beneath the clouds like upside-down sharks; it's the scariest moment Pixar has put to film since the mutant toys in Toy Story.

The film's tormented production history, which found director Peter Sohn jumping in late to salvage a story that the executives felt was going wrong, certainly leaves its mark: the film takes place in a curiously underdeveloped world, with the notional hook of "what if the dinosaurs didn't go extinct, and formed societies while primitive humans were running around?" is badly shortchanged, with the environment feeling weirdly underpopulated. And the opening and closing are both rocky, getting us to the meat of the action in a somewhat labored way.

For all that, the great majority of hte film really is something to behold: absolutely gorgeous (this is easily the prettiest movie Pixar has made, which almost by default makes it the prettiest computer animation in history), anchored by a richly sentimental adventure score by Mychael and Jeff Danna and by sweet, likable characters learning basic life lessons; but then, the most basic life lessons are the most important ones. If it is middle-tier Pixar – and it certainly is, though we're a long way up from Cars 2, Monsters University, or even Brave – that just goes to show how elevated Pixar's output has been. From any other studio, this would be a slam-dunk masterpiece.

Rating: B+

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Reader Comments (2)

The biggest thing I agree with you on is the word "underdeveloped", which can be said about most of the characters, the alternate-reality world, every sub-plot, and much of the character designs.

I was supportive during the hatching scene, and there are some good moments throughout, but once they showed a chicken coop and seeder that creatures without opposable thumbs never could've made, I knew that this wasn't going in a direction that wasn't going to be for me.

The score is indeed tremendous though. I would heartily support an Oscar nod there.

November 30, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterteppo2

It's very pretty, and sweet, and that scene when Arlo and Spot tell each other about their families using sticks was beautiful and made me tear up, but it just felt so done. It was a mix of The Lion King and Brother Bear, and they both did it better.

I wonder if I'd felt differently about The Good Dinosaur if I had seen it after Monsters University and not Inside Out, but as it is... They followed up Ratatouille with WALL-E then with Up then with Toy Story 3, so we know they can follow up outstanding with outstanding. I expect more from them than this.

December 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

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