Good Dinosaur, The (United States, 2015)

November 26, 2015
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Good Dinosaur, The Poster

The Good Dinosaur, although an adequate family film, lacks qualities that have made many of Pixar’s previous productions classics. Less a major animated effort than a late-autumn “filler”, the movie offers enough to enthrall children without boring parents but, at the same time, fails to provide the thematic depth and richness on offer in such previous titles like Toy Story 3, The Incredibles, and WALL-E. To that extent, The Good Dinosaur is a disappointment, although most viewers who pay $10 to see it likely won’t regret the purchase.

The Good Dinosaur had a troubled production history and that may have been the root cause of the on-screen problems. It spent nearly six years in development and two years ago underwent a reconstruction with major rewrites, the jettisoning of the director and most of the original voice cast, and a “repurposing” of the project. Although Disney claims to be “very pleased” with the end result, The Good Dinosaur’s meandering storyline shows signs of what may have concerned the studio.

The film offers a variety of cobbled together genres. The early scenes echo themes and moments from The Lion King and The Jungle Book. A majority of the running time represents a road trip with buddy film elements. Portions of the second half pay homage to the Western, complete with a campfire, a round-up, musical cues inspired by The Magnificent Seven, and the gravelly intonations of Sam Elliott. The typical Disney messages about tolerance, friendship, and perseverance are in evidence but they seem obligatory and are clumsily integrated.

The opening sequence provides setup to explain (for anyone who cares…) the Flintstones-friendly co-existence of humans and dinosaurs during the same era. The asteroid hypothesized to have caused the mass extinction event misses the Earth, allowing the behemoths to continue their existence unimpeded by global climate change.  Several million years later, dinosaurs have developed into anthropomorphized creatures while humans favor walking on all fours and yapping like dogs. The Good Dinosaur’s hero, Arlo (voice of Raymond Ochoa), is the youngest member of an Apatosaurus (a.k.a. “Brontosaurus”) family - Dad (Jeffrey Wright), Mom (Frances McDormand), and three kids. They’re farmers, stocking up for the winter. But they have a “pest” problem - a human child (later named “Spot”) is sneaking into their stores and eating their corn. Dad tasks Arlo with the chore of exterminating the intruder. But the young dinosaur can’t bring himself to kill. A chase ensues and, when Arlo and his father are caught in a sudden storm, tragedy occurs. The rest of the movie follows Arlo and Spot, swept away by a river to a far-off place, as they make the homeward journey.

Visually, The Good Dinosaur boasts some of the most amazingly photo-realistic sets I have seen in any animated film. There are times when it appears as if the filmmakers inserted the characters/creatures into real world footage. The water scenes - often troublesome in animated films - are flawlessly rendered. If The Good Dinosaur falls short in the narrative department, it represents a step forward for Pixar’s artists.  The realism of the surroundings makes the dinosaurs seem more cute and cartoonish than they might otherwise. It’s a conscious choice since photo-realistic dinosaurs might be too frightening for young children. After all, this isn’t Jurassic World.

A role reversal casts a non-human as the chatty protagonist and a (prehistoric) homo sapien as the sidekick/pet. Although it’s an accepted conceit that animals often talk in Disney movies, few are as verbally skilled as Arlo. And Spot (thus named to re-inforce his similarities to a loyal canine) never utters a word, although he scratches himself and howls from time-to-time. Unfortunately, this clever inversion doesn’t make either Arlo or Spot more interesting. They’re generic cookie-cutter characters.

The pace, as is often the case with road movies regardless of the species of the protagonists or the terrain through which they travel, is uneven. There are long stretches when little happens punctuated by action set pieces.  Many “popular” dinosaurs make appearances, including T-Rexes and velociraptors. Perhaps the best moment comes during an understated scene where Arlo and Spot, who don’t share a language, use sticks to communicate. There’s emotion and pathos in this sequence - something the rest of the movie could have used more of.

Kids (especially boys) love dinosaurs.  The attraction seems hardwired into their DNA.  The Good Dinosaur is an attempt to exploit that without going full Jurassic Park. The problem is that the film’s uncertain narrative creates a variable viewing experience. Despite some of Pixar’s recent failures, there’s still an expectation that anything with their name attached with be better than features produced by their rivals, but that’s not the case with The Good Dinosaur. The movie isn’t appreciably better or worse than a Madagascar or an Ice Age. It’s top-quality animation in service of a less than top-quality script.

Good Dinosaur, The (United States, 2015)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2015-11-25
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Animated
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1