Over the years, I’ve learned never to underestimate John Lasseter and his team at Pixar. Before the fledgling studio became the phenomenon it is, I remember seeing the trailer for a movie like Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc. or Cars and beeing underwhelmed, only to have my mind blown upon seeing the film. Has every Pixar outing been excellent? I’m afraid not; have they all been high-quality pieces of art that raise the bar for everyone else? Yes, and I respect Pixar much more for that, as even their poorest work far exceeds the majority of films churned out by other studios. The reason for this quality-infused renaissance stems from the the integrity of Pixar as a company; they won’t simply release a movie because it’s on the schedule, or because they need to get something out to help their bottom line. The men and women at Pixar (most notably Lasseter, who was also integral in bringing Disney Animation back from the brink of death) take pride in their work and won’t let mediocre slip by because of some arbitrary deadline. No more prevalent is this than with The Good Dinosaur, a film originally scheduled for the summer of 2014, but held back because they knew it wasn’t ready. How much this delay affected the film’s overall story, production and idea, I’m not sure, but if the film benefited from this postponement, I have to say, they may have wanted to keep the film in the oven just a wee bit longer.
The film isn’t bad by any means, but it’s clear the filmmakers had issues with developing this fresh idea. The conceit behind the story is good: what if the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs missed? The execution is where it falters slightly, as the film doesn’t really go far enough in exploring that idea. Am I asking for an odd, Flintstones redux, where people live in harmony with the dinosaurs (and in most cases, use them as tools)? Not necessarily, but to have this idea flounder because it doesn’t go far enough leaves much to be desired. What they do come up with — long-neck dinosaurs sowing seeds, Tyrannosauruses herding cattle — is fun and interesting but isn’t explored beyond the base “human” tendencies, mixed with the same, routine staples Pixar has come to be known for.
I think this stems from director Peter Sohn and writer Meg LeFauve not knowing exactly how to start their story. The birth of our young hero is good and the domesticated farmers idea works well, as the youngest, klutzier son, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), is tasked with catching the critter that’s been stealing their winter food supply. Instead of killing the thing like he’s supposed to when it gets snared in their trap, Arlo takes sympathy on it and lets it go. This infuriates his father (Jeffrey Wright), who forces Arlo to chase after it. And this is where the main problem of the film lies.
Arlo and his father are caught in a major thunderstorm while chasing the critter, and as they try to escape the flooding river, Arlo’s father dies. We know this because right after the death, we’re taken back to the farm where Arlo helps his mom (Frances McDormand) reap the corn fields, only to find the critter in their silo again. He chases the thing away and accidentally gets swept away by the river. Not only is this sequence awkward (How did Arlo get back? How long did it take him? How long has it been since the death?), but it’s an unnecessary diversion that lessens the impact on the father’s death and sucks a lot of emotional power from later scenes. Had Arlo also got washed away by the river at the time of his father’s death, not only would it have heightened the hatred Arlo initially has toward the critter, but it would have kept whether or not the father actually died a mystery, adding more punch to a scene later in the film when Arlo dreams of his father’s return.
That aside, the heart of the story is terrifically executed. The Good Dinosaur is, at its core, an adventure story about a boy and his dog finding their way back home, wherein Arlo is the boy and the critter (in this case a young human) is the dog. Dubbed Spot (Jack Bright) halfway through the film, the critter is fun, boisterous and caring — a dinosaurs best friend, if you will. It’s the loving bond of friendship that forms between them that holds the film together, flowing from crazy amusement to thoughtful serenity to heartbreaking splendor as they hit home the message of the importance of family and how to make your mark on the world.
Together they shine, but add in a sidekick here and an enemy there, and the film somehow becomes harder to invest in anything. Though the friends Arlo meets along his journey are all funny in their own right, some of them still feel forced upon us rather than being a natural part of the world itself. Other than the wise old sage of a T-Rex (Sam Elliot), the rest are goofy, mindless, redneck-type characters that bumble their way through the film without being able to coalesce to the rhythm set by Arlo and Spot.
I point to The Land Before Time, another story in which dinosaurs must journey home, as a benchmark for creating a set of characters that all have different personalities and fit well together because they have a strong chemistry. Sohn fails to produce that same harmony outside of our two core characters. It might be because of his artistic choice to mix relatively cartoon-style characters amongst hyper-realistic environments, which right from the start sets a conflicting tone that never really settles together. Or it could come from his reliance on sequences that have been done much better in previous films (Dumbo’s drunken pink elephants are more schizophrenic than Arlo and Spot’s drug-induced moment, and Mufasa’s death is so much more poignant than Arlo’s father’s demise). Whatever it is, The Good Dinosaur ends up being Pixar’s weakest offering to date.
Which doesn’t mean much when compared to Pixar’s best — it still holds up well as a pleasant, enjoyable escape that will keep the kids occupied and give your heartstrings a nice pull.
My Grade: B+
Next week, new movies include Krampus. If you would like to see a review of this, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.