The Good Dinosaurby Alex Stroup, staff writer
It is interesting to think about what the elevator pitch was for The Good Dinosaur at Pixar. Three come to mind after watching it:
- "Imagine a world where the meteor missed Earth, and dinosaurs and humans coexist."
- "It's the familiar story of a boy and his dog struggling to get back home. Except the boy is a dinosaur and the dog is a boy."
- "What if we did a remake of The Lion King, but for people who thought the music was the weakest part?"
These are all accurate, and they all indicate problems with the movie.
Official movie trailer for "The Good Dinosaur" (2015). © Disney Pixar.
The first one is what was most known from the advertising. It also has almost nothing to do with this movie. Rather than driving the story, it is a backfill to explain the story they wanted. Since this review is imagining elevator pitches, let's also imagine an early story meeting:
Director Peter Sohn: "So we'll have this dinosaur named Arlo (and we'll get Raymond Ochoa to play the part) and he meets a young human named Spot (maybe Jack Bright can do his voice)."
Executive Producer John Lasseter: "Wait. Humans and dinosuars never lived at the same time."
Peter Sohn: "Yeah, sure, of course. But wouldn't it be cool?"
John Lasseter: "You've sold me, but I'm the one who will get letters from upset paleontologists and stopped by cranks as I wander around DCA admiring my ever-expanding empire. Can you help a senior executive out here?"
Peter Sohn: "Sure. We'll open with a shot of the meteor that killed the dinosaurs not killing the dinosaurs. Then a title card saying "65 million years later..." and then we'll never mention it again. That work?"
John Lasseter: "Sounds good, and let's put it in the trailer so people know we know. Now, why is the human boy named Spot?"
Peter Sohn: "I'll get to that in the next imaginary conversation we have."
So, the fact of humans and dinosaurs coexisting is not remotely a point of interest for the movie. It just is. Kind of like The Flintstones. Except with the societal roles switched. Dino is Fred Flinstone and Fred Flintstone is Dino.
Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand) are farmers living out in the middle of nowhere—Wyoming-ish —growing corn on a farm. Brontosaurus-type farmers, but farmers. They're happy, and it is quickly revealed, about to be new parents as three eggs hatch. Libby (Maleah Nipay-Padilla) and Buck (Ryan Teeple) hatch first, with Arlo (yes, they did get Raymond Ochoa after all) coming out last and the runt of trio.
As they grow, Libby and Buck are both outgoing and confident, and help the family. Arlo remains small and cowardly (the farm's collection of chicken-like things terrifies him, and the "chickens" know it) and can't do much to help out around the homestead. Dad finally assigns Arlo a task of finding and killing a critter that keeps raiding the corn being stored for the winter. Turns out that the critter in question is Spot, a human boy who is apparently all on his own. And the term critter really is more accurate than derogatory.
For some reason, humans are essentially dogs. Spot walks around on all fours, howls and barks like a dog, scratches himself like a dog, and is able to track by scent like a dog. As far as the movie is concerned, Spot could just as easily have actually been a dog and it wouldn't make the slightest difference.
Perhaps it is meant to be deep to suggest that if the dinosaurs had lived they'd have evolved human social and engineering characters (but not opposable thumbs) while humans would never have gotten much beyond basic animal levels of cognition (but still evolved large brains and tool using hands). Which is a significant, if deeply erroneous, embracing of evolution.
Anyway, once Arlo and Spot meet, The Good Dinosaur quickly becomes The Lion King II: This Time Without Elton John or Scar. First, there is a very explicit Lion King moment that may be too intense for the youngest audience member—and then Arlo and Spot find themselves lost and far away from the farm, having to learn how to get along in order to triumphantly return.
One benefit of being a child in the audience is that derivative is OK. Odds are they won't recognize it, and even if they do, watching a movie over and over again is what they're best at, anyway. For adults in the audience, though, the hooks are relatively thin; this is very much a kids-first movie. A disappointing turn from Pixar, though hopefully done intentionally.
Foremost among the pleasures for parents are the strikingly realistic backgrounds throughout the movie. Every character in The Good Dinosaur is animated in a cartoonish style but the settings are photo-realistic throughout. Rushing water is a recurring theme, and every time an engorged river was shown running through rapids, it would be easy to believe that they'd simply filmed on the river in Kings Canyon rather than actually animating it. The discordant animation styles are abrupt at times (especially when a cartoon character is shown in that perfectly animated water), but it's still impressive eye candy throughout.
The second pleasure is a weird surreality throughout. Much of it doesn't work particularly well (again, such as the humans being, essentially, dogs, and then actually naming one of them Spot) but a few scenes do, such as a scene involving some fruit or another irritating some prairie dogs. Unfortunately, they're all too brief and spread out too far to overcome the essential blandness of the story.
Young kids will likely love the movie, and parents will have to settle for the vicarious joy of that rather than the direct pleasure Pixar usually provides.
- The Good Dinosaur is a Disney Pixar release
- Wide theatrical release on Thursday, November 26, 2015
- Directed by Peter Sohn
- Screenplay by Meg LaFauve
- Starring Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Sam Elliott
- Running time: 100 minutes
- Rated PG for peril, action, and thematic elements
- Alex's rating: 6 out of 10 stars