“The Good Dinosaur”
1 hour, 39 minutes
Even the best laid plans go awry sometimes, and there is no better planner in Hollywood than Pixar, the animation powerhouse that brought us… well, just about every truly classic animated film of the last twenty years. The week’s “The Good Dinosaur” is that rare dud from a studio that sets the standard for everyone else. And even a bad movie from Pixar beats most of the other animated dreck out there — I’m looking at you “Alvin & The Chipmunks 3: Chipwrecked.”
“The Good Dinosaur” tells the tale of Arlo, a young Apatosaurus who lives in a world where the meteoric catastrophe that killed the dinosaurs never occurred. Not having gone extinct, the dinosaurs evolved, and millions of years later, we meet Arlo and his family, corn farmers living in what can only be the Rocky Mountains of America. Farming is hard, but each member of the family is able to distinguish themselves in one way or another, all getting to make their “mark.” In this case, that mark is a literal footprint of honor on the wall of their corn silo, built to keep pests from eating the hard-won corn. Only Arlo, a fearful young dino, has yet to have the opportunity. However, when the corn thief returns, Arlo’s father puts our young hero in charge of the extermination effort. This turns out to be a poor decision because when Arlo discovers the bandit, a feral human child, he can’t bring himself to kill it. This sets off a tragic chain of events which eventually finds a bitter Arlo lost in the wilderness with only the child, who he dubs “Spot,” for companionship. The pair encounters a host of strange and intimidating characters, including a trio of disturbingly zealous storm-worshiping Pteranodons, cattle driving Tyrannosaurs, and a troop of prehistoric prairie dogs. Arlo must get home however and, with Spot’s help, he just might make it.
“The Good Dinosaur’s” problems are myriad, but not least is an extremely uneven tone. Ostensibly a coming of age story, the film attempts to insert both humor and frights, but it’s all very awkward and jumbled. The Pteranodons are particularly scary, and their introduction feels like it’s taking the film in a weird direction. Other off-putting scenes include an oddly deranged Styracosaurus who camouflages in the forest and collects small animals. The character feels designed to be a toy, but has absolutely no reason to be in the movie. Worse still is the brief scene where Arlo and Spot take a psychedelic trip after eating some hallucinogenic fermented fruit. The best scene in the movie is where Arlo meets up with the T. Rexes, but I’ll contend that any movie is improved by adding the smoky intonations of Sam Elliott. Those fifteen or so minutes in the middle of the film were by far my favorite.
While the uneven tone of the film is bad enough, I was more disturbed by the look of the film. This is truly the highs and lows of animation. The actual rendering of the computer generated animation is jaw-droppingly amazing. The use of water, especially, is leaps ahead of anything else out there. Landscapes, clouds, grasses, flowers – it’s all so photo realistic that you literally can’t tell the difference anymore. Which leads me to wonder why they made Arlo look so dopey? The dinosaur design is goofy, and next to the surroundings, sticks out like a sore thumb. I kept thinking Arlo would just grow on me, but the movie is, thankfully, too short for that. It’s especially odd because the whole look is so obviously deliberate. The filmmakers wanted this bizarre dichotomy. Spot looks a little better, but then he’s problematic too. I know we’re doing a riff on man’s best friend, here, but some of the use of Spot, basically acting like a dog, threw me off a little.
“If he’s so primitive, why is he wearing clothes, (or at least furry undergarments?)” I wondered. My wife reminded me, “it’s just a fantasy, relax.”
“The Good Dinosaur’s” problems are nothing particularly surprising to industry observers. This movie has been in production a long, long time. Way back in 2013, with nearly half the film completed, Paramount removed the original director and replaced him with one of the assistants. Then, in 2014, the entire voice cast, save one, was fired and replaced, and the entire vocal track rerecorded. Originally, Arlo was to be a full-grown Apatosaurus, but retooling shrunk him to the age of a young child, necessitating a new voice and an entirely new story. Changing horses in mid-stream is rarely a good idea, and I think “The Good Dinosaur” is proof of that. There are enjoyable parts, certainly, and my kids had a reasonably good time. That, however, is the standard I hold for lesser animation houses like Dreamworks or Blue Sky. Pixar has proven they can do much more, and we shouldn’t have to accept less. Grade: C+
“The Good Dinosaur” is rated PG for peril, action and thematic elements.