The Good Dinosaur (2015)

Little arms big attitude

Two Pixar films in one year! What’s going on ey? I guess they’re back for another bite! Truth-be-told 2015 wasn’t always supposed to be a double-header for the animation studio. In any case we find ourselves with Pixar’s 16th film, The Good Dinosaur, hot on the heels of the truly superb Inside Out (2015), emerging on the back foot after its troubled six-year production — which was fraught with a plethora of in-house problems including story alterations, studio layoffs, a change in director and some cast re-shuffling. Given its inventive premise, one that imagines a world where the dinos have dodged extinction and therefore must learn to co-exist with humans, The Good Dinosaur sticks to a very ‘safe’ formula, ditching ingenuity for a paint-by-numbers odyssey that treads familiar territory, borrowing thematic ingredients from other Disney flicks such as The Lion King (1994) and Dinosaur (2000).

You shouldn't play with your food.
You shouldn’t play with your food.

Set in an alternative timeline where dinosaurs still roam the land — the prehistoric beasts having evolved faster than humans, learning agriculture and cultivation — The Good Dinosaur opens with two Apatosaurus farmers named Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Ida (Frances McDormand), who give birth to three children; the willful Libby (Maleah Nipay-Padilla), the unruly Buck (Marcus Scribner), and the runt of the litter, the tiny, hapless Arlo (Raymond Ochoa). Encouraged by his father or ‘Poppa’ to step out of his shell and go beyond his limits, Arlo seeks to make his mark in the world (signified here by a mud-print on a corn silo made of stone), just like his brother and sister.

Alas, when Arlo helps his Poppa chase down a ‘critter’ who’d been sneaking into the dino’s corn supply and eating their food, Arlo’s dad is tragically killed (um, Lion King anyone?), leaving Ida and the litter to tend to their farm alone. After spotting the ‘critter’ inside the silo a second time, Arlo chases him down, this time falling into a ferocious river and getting swept away. Separated from his family, Arlo eventually catches up with the ‘critter,’ an untamed man-cub he ends up naming Spot (Jack Bright), and together the pair embark on a trek through the wild terrain, where they must overcome violent storms and predatory beasts in order to get back to Arlo’s farm near the Claw Tooth Mountains. Throughout this treacherous journey, Arlo is forced to face his inner fears and phobias, learning what he is truly capable of, as he ventures home to be reunited with his mother and siblings.

No LEDs were harmed in the making of this film.
No LEDs were harmed in the making of this film.

Directed by Peter Sohn, the guy who helmed the Pixar short, Partly Cloudy (2009) — with Sohn taking over from the story’s original creator, Bob Peterson — The Good Dinosaur is a bit of a mixed bag. You see, while the flick does have its fair share of charming moments — mainly scenes involving Arlo and Spot, with their touching unspoken bond serving as the picture’s backbone (a sequence where the pair convey their heartbreaking parallels is a real standout) — these segments are too scarce and scattered.

Where this primeval Western really lacks however, is in its wittiness with The Good Dinosaur missing that classic Disney/Pixar humor that audiences have somewhat come to expect. Focusing on dark, bleak, life-altering themes such as childhood trauma and the importance of finding one’s self, The Good Dinosaur is a bit of a downer really; the film features little to no comedy bar a strange gag involving some hallucinogenic fruits and a freaky acid trip. There aren’t any adult-smarts here either, just an uninspired story about a timid protagonist overcoming his fears; young children won’t get it while adults will most likely find themselves drifting. Even the film’s workable idea is kinda wasted with the storyteller in me thinking that the creative team should’ve set the bulk of narrative in the present day, exploring how both dinosaurs and humans have learned to live together for all these years — in that respect, the whole comet-missing-the-Earth thing feels sorta redundant.

Are your Macleans showing?
Are your Macleans showing?

In this day and age, viewers demand first-rate animation from their ‘cartoons,’ and thankfully The Good Dinosaur delivers in that department (well, mostly). As we trudge through the million-year-old landscape with Arlo and Spot, we’re exposed to a vast number of stunning environments, with the sheer life-like detail of these backdrops highlighting the power of nature and Pixar’s first-rate craftsmanship; The Good Dinosaur might actually be Pixar’s most striking film to date — some of their work here is simply Dino-Mite. On the other hand, the animated dinos and cartoony character designs feel a little off, with the studio’s distinctive bright colors, rounded edges, and big eyes working against the impressive realistic scenery. Although director Sohn has stated that this contrast was done on purpose, with the intention to make nature feel ‘more threatening,’ it just doesn’t cut it, this combination coming across as jarring and unusual instead — I did like the cute animal designs though.

The voice cast do a decent job and are all well suited to their respective characters, the standouts being Sam Elliott, Hulk (2003), who plays a gruff Tyrannosaurus rex named Butch, the head of a clan of longhorn-herding T-rexes and Steve Zahn, Chicken Little (2005), who portrays Thunderclap, the leader of a fanatical band of pterodactyls. Come to think of it, there aren’t many prehistoric encounters in The Good Dinosaur’s entire 93 minute run time, so those expecting wall-to-wall dino action might find themselves a little disappointed in this department. On a side note, keep an eye out for a Styracosaurus named Forrest Woodbush, who keeps a variety of animals perched on his horns, voiced by the film’s director Peter Sohn.

'Hey kids, does your Christmas tree look like this?'
‘Hey kids, does your Christmas tree look like this?’

Following the outstanding Inside Out with a step back in quality, The Good Dinosaur suffers as a result (a one-note screenplay by Meg LeFauve, who surprisingly assisted in penning the aforementioned, doesn’t help either), but I guess the flick’s cutting-edge animation might entice certain viewers to visit this wondrous world regardless, even if its inhabitants do look rather silly and our protagonists take the road most traveled. Despite the fact that this coming-of-age tale might be Pixar’s bleakest and dreariest outing to date, it still does have its virtues, but with any luck, the narrative won’t be so ancient next time around.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

The Good Dinosaur is released through Disney Australia