'The Good Dinosaur'
Over the years, Pixar has become victims of its own success. The studio has produced so many truly astounding works of animation that, when it releases a movie that’s merely good, it can’t help but feel like a mild disappointment. This summer, Pixar released its finest effort in years with the beautiful ‘Inside Out’. Now, just in time for Christmas, we’re getting a second blast of Pixar in the long delayed ‘The Good Dinosaur’.
From a technical standpoint, the film is a triumph. From a storytelling standpoint, it’s merely fine. That’s enough to make it more than worthy of a family trip to the cinema, and the movie is better than most of its CGI competition. However, ‘The Good Dinosaur’ certainly falls into the lesser half of the studio’s achievements, so those expecting a new Pixar classic will leave the theater disappointed.
The tale opens up with a “What if?” proposition, supposing that dinosaurs didn’t go extinct 65 million years ago. Then we dive into the story, as a pair of long-necked Apatosauruses voiced by Jeffery Wright and Frances McDormand await the egg-cracking birth of their children. There are three, but the most interesting is a little runt named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa). Arlo grows up perpetually in the shadow of his siblings, too small and scared to develop as quickly. The family shares a dino-farm and Arlo takes the smallest and least challenging tasks.
One day, Arlo’s father takes him out to learn the importance of bravery when disaster strikes. Soon, the young dinosaur is sent racing down river rapids before washing up lost and alone. He does at least pick up a new friend in the tragedy, a little feral human named Spot (Jack Bright). Together, the unlikely pair take a long journey home filled with bonding, adventure and life lessons.
Yes, this is essentially a “boy and his dog” story, but with a dinosaur as the boy and a boy as the dog. It’s actually kind of a clever inversion of a kiddie flick cliché that toys around with humanity’s place in the food chain – not that the filmmakers dig very deeply into that or any of the themes, to be honest. No, this is a straightforward tale of adventure and growth. The central characters are endearing enough to pull that off, with Arlo providing plenty of gentle charm and Spot serving up silent comedy. The film also has colorful supporting characters who arrive along the way, including a pack of oddly friendly T-Rexes led by Sam Elliott. The animated landscapes and characters show off the artistry and software that Pixar has developed as well as any of the studio’s previous productions. Action swings along, jokes pop, and it all builds toward an inevitably touching finale that earns its tears.
So why doesn’t the movie ever really soar? It’s tough to say, exactly. The right pieces are in place. Nothing is overtly wrong. It just all feels a little too familiar. The Pixar formula may still work, but only when applied to original ideas like those in ‘Inside Out’. ‘The Good Dinosaur’ is essentially a long lost ‘Land Before Time’ sequel that sticks rigidly to established formulas without ever really becoming something new or special. It has no scenes that ring horribly false, but none that stand out as particularly memorable either.
If the episodic journey home seems to lack cohesion, that’s likely due to the fact that the movie suffered a troubled production history with some major reshoots and staff changes. Maybe the film initially tried for something more ambitious that didn’t quite work, so it was softened down to something safe? Or maybe this thing never quite amounted to much and the team just needed time to make it the best mediocre Pixar effort it could possibly be?
Thankfully, the film is far from a disaster. It’s more satisfying than, say, ‘Monsters University’ because it at least introduces new characters and a fresh world. ‘The Good Dinosaur’ will likely be a big holiday hit and deservingly so. It does the basics of family storytelling well. However, when the Pixar team is on-point, they can be transcendent, so even a good movie from them feels like a waste. Still, this isn’t a failure and we already got one Pixar masterpiece this year. Complaining that we didn’t get a second is probably just greedy.