WRITTEN REVIEW – The Good Dinosaur (2015)
The Good Dinosaur
Directed by: Peter Sohn
Written by: Meg LeFauve
Starring: Raymond Ochoa, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Sam Elliot & Steve Zahn
Music: Mychael Danna & Jeff Danna
Release Date: November 27th 2015
‘The Good Dinosaur‘ is easily the most troubled Pixar Animations production since the original ‘Toy Story‘ in 1995. Tonal issues and the morality of Sheriff Woody during development of ‘Toy Story‘ frequently brought production to a halt and required rewrite after rewrite. But for ‘The Good Dinosaur‘, the production process has been more drawn out. Originally starting development in 2009 the release date was first slated for November 2013. However, that date was moved to May 2014 as the story (particularly the 3rd act) was not coming together. In fact, Pixar laid-off almost 70 employees due to the delays and had to shut down their Canadian division.
The movie was then completely re-worked from the ground up with the entire voice cast being replaced as late as June 2015, 5 months before release. Over the past 20 years Pixar have had a clockwork system that has allowed them to make hit after hit, but ‘The Good Dinosaur‘ could be the first dent in their armour. Does the end result reflect such a trouble production or is it impossible for Pixar to face creative extinction?
65 million years ago, when Dinosaurs ruled the earth, the meteorite that was thought to wipe out the Dinosaurs actually missed the planet meaning that they evolved further into an agrarian society where they speak English. Young Arlo comes from an Apatosaurus family and he’s terrified of everything, which isn’t helped when his father Henry (Wright) is killed in a tragic incident. Shortly afterwards, he’s separated from his family after a storm hurtles him down the river. Arlo needs to return home to help his mother on the farm before Winter comes and along the way he encounters a human child he names Spot who seeks to protect him on his journey through the valley.
First things first, ‘The Good Dinosaur‘ (like all Pixar movies) opens with an animated short; ‘Sanjay’s Super Team‘ which is directed by Sanjay Patel who has worked as an animator for Pixar since ‘Toy Story 2‘. It’s a great short, with brilliant colours, a lovely premise and the family/true-story touch makes it all the sweeter. A great, humble short film.
Anyways, to business. ‘The Good Dinosaur‘ feels more like an old-school Disney movie in the vein of ‘Bambi‘ and ‘Dumbo‘ where it deals with a rather simplistic lead character who has to grow up after a personal tragedy. While it’s hardly a formula exclusive to Disney, Pixar often does more with this trope by making the characters much more interesting and layered. Arlo in ‘The Good Dinosaur‘ is not an especially interesting character when compared to Pixar leads such as Marlon from ‘Finding Nemo‘ or Carl from ‘Up‘. He’s a relatable protagonist though, whose timid nature and fear of everything is holding him back from reaching any sort of potential. He wants to conquer his fear, he just needs a helping hand and he’s endearing in that respect, even if he’s a bit simple-minded.
Most Pixar movies have had a tradition of pairing up their lead with a polar-opposite supporting character to get across witty interplay (Woody & Buzz, Mike & Sully, Marlon & Dory, Joy & Sadness, Carl & Russell, Lighting & Mater etc.) and joining Arlo on his quest for home is Spot, a feral cave-boy who is much braver and more tuned to the wilderness than the sheltered Arlo. Due to Spot not speaking a single line of dialogue throughout the movie there isn’t much dialogue to be exchanged between the two, but what the movie flirts with is an arc of forgiveness. Without getting into spoilers, it’s established early on that Arlo holds a resentment for Spot due to earlier actions and that he has to begrudgingly travel with him since Spot knows where to find food, how to travel etc.
Unfortunately, the conflict with Arlo (not really with Spot since he’s kinda like a dog and doesn’t realise he’s done anything wrong) is dropped without resolution. Arlo needs to take Spot along for the ride, so he just does and their prior drama isn’t really addressed. It’s a missed opportunity and it feels like that sub-plot was left on the cutting room floor as a result of production-issues. This means we have a second act that really doesn’t have a lot of conflict and most of the movie comes across as a shallow walking-tour of this alternative prehistoric time period.
I use the word “shallow” because there really isn’t much to talk about. Despite the countless potential characters and scenarios and species that could be encountered in this story. Aside from Arlo’s Apatosaurus family, we only encounter four other species; a lone Styracosaurus who has one comedic scene that really falls flat and then is never seen again, a family of Tyrannosaurus’, a group of Velociraptors in one action scene (who are actually covered in feathers which is interesting but…kinda makes you question why ONLY this species of dinosaur are depicted with feathers) and Pterodactyls who act as main villains. Pixar normally do a terrific job at world-building but they’ve really missed an opportunity with ‘The Good Dinosaur‘. Part of Arlo’s journey is that he’s supposed to be exploring a world that’s fascinating and new to him, but there’s hardly anything to really explore here and not many interesting characters to meet. This prehistoric world feels empty and barren instead of teaming with life and new adventures to be found.
The villains are, by far, the weakest part of ‘The Good Dinosaur‘ with the Pterodactyls possibly being the lamest, most non-threatening and mis-judged villains in Pixar’s library. The movie can’t make up its mind as to whether they’re stoner comic-relief or a genuine threat. Imagine Disney’s ‘The Lion King‘ but if the hyenas were the ONLY antagonists. Really they only exist to give the movie a contrived and way-too convenient climax. The Velociraptors similarly suffer a similar tonal problem and aren’t very well defined. In fact, I was very surprised to find Pixar stable John Ratzenberger voiced one of them. Despite him having a distinct voice, I didn’t even know he was in the movie until I saw the credits.
The rest of the cast are decent with Sam Elliot giving a gruff turn as Butch who runs a ranch with his T-Rex family. It’s strange in that the family go “Heyah” as if they were riding horses except they’re just running, but it…kinda works? Sorta. The voice-acting for anyone not the villains is solid across the board though especially Jeffrey Wright makes for a convincing and humble father-figure to Arlo. But the villains really are grating in terms of their dialogue and voice-performances. We also have a great child voice performance in Raymond Ochoa as Arlo. Very emotionally charged, very sincere and very good all-around.
This review probably reads as though I really disliked ‘The Good Dinosaur‘ but that really isn’t the case. Kinda like older Disney movies like ‘Bambi‘ there are terrific moments and scenes in the film but there isn’t really a “whole” there. The sum of its parts are truly greater than the whole with some breath-taking visual moments like when Arlo and Spot and running through a field full of white birds, or hopping at the top of mountains and going above the clouds. There are even some incredibly strong emotional moments between Arlo and Spot, such as when they explain to each other what happened to their families by drawing circles in the sand. And the ending of the movie did have me holding back tears because their relationship feels genuine. It’s a bitter-sweet ending, but it was deserved. That resolution was so good that the final FINAL scene felt lame in comparison.
The relationship between Arlo and Spot is the only narrative aspect of ‘The Good Dinosaur‘ that excels or has any emotional weight to it. The movie never cuts back to Arlo’s family when he’s separated from them and we never actually see how his brother and sister reacted to him going missing which feels like a missed opportunity. The supporting cast either don’t leave an impression or grate and the villains are either weak and mis-judged. ‘The Good Dinosaur‘ feels like it should have just been a 30-40 minute animated movie about a Dinosaur and his pet Human. If that was the case we could have had an exceptional, sweet and heart-warming piece of entertainment. But as it stands right now we have an okay animated movie with some very sweet and heart-warming scenes.
But as is to be expected with Pixar, the whole enterprise looks stunning. The environments are wonderfully rendered and detailed, looking photo-realistic and absolutely gorgeous. We’ve come a long way since Andy’s bedroom in 1995 and ‘The Good Dinosaur‘ is full of beautiful lighting effects, particles, textures etc. The water, in particular is wonderfully realised such as one scene where Arlo wakes up on a beach and as he stands up the water he’s been laying in sticks to his body for a moment before the gravity turns them into droplets. It’s in these details where ‘The Good Dinosaur‘ proves itself to be a great technical show-case.
Even some of the imagery is striking, such as a ‘Jaws‘ inspired scene where the Pterodactyls stick their beaks through the clouds to resemble upside-down shark fins. The character designs, while maybe a bit too cartoonish which clashes with the environments, do hold-up under scrutiny as they animated fluidly, have great texture work when you take a closer look and do have a sense of weight to them. In trailers and pictures they may look odd, but in context the style does work. It’s just a shame we couldn’t see more of them as ‘The Good Dinosaur‘ really doesn’t offer that many creatures to showcase. The music by Mychael and Jeff Danna is also very strong with it carrying a lot of sequences due to the lack of dialogue. The score feels grandiose but never over-bearing and not betraying the humble origins and roots of its main character.
‘The Good Dinosaur‘ is not a bad film, but you can feel the troubled production whilst watching it as it does feel aimless for a lot of its run-time. The villains are lame and the second act is slow and rather inactive but there are moments of startling beauty here and I’m not just talking about the gorgeous backdrops and scenery. Arlo and Spot make for a great, expressive pairing but they feel narratively under-utilised even if their emotional bond feels rich and true. The story doesn’t have much drive to it and Arlo isn’t an interesting enough hero to sustain a 100 minute, meandering runtime but, oddly enough, it manages to hold together thanks to its charm. Definitely a weaker Pixar entry, but not a bad film by any means. ‘Sanjay’s Super Team‘ was awesome though. Go see the movie for that as well.
I give ‘The Good Dinosaur‘ 3 stars out of 5.
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Posted In: 2015 Reviews Current Reviews Reviews
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Posted: 7th Dec 15