REVIEW: The Good Dinosaur [2015]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG | Runtime: 100 minutes | Release Date: November 25th, 2015 (USA)
Studio: Pixar Animation Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Director(s): Peter Sohn
Writer(s): Meg LeFauve

“Look who got relevated”

You constantly hear about movies needing reshoots, but The Good Dinosaur‘s troubles went beyond cosmetic enhancements into full-blown emergency room triage. I’m talking two years of development before a release date announcement, two more before that date and original director Bob Peterson (who came up with the story alongside his directorial replacement Peter Sohn) were scrapped, and another two wherein the plot got completely retooled until the final film would bare little resemblance to the germ of an idea on which it began. Pixar’s cancelled Newt went through a metamorphosis too, eventually spawning Inside Out from wreckage that rendered its titular character nothing but a memory. While the studio’s creative process has embraced fluctuation since Toy Story—these two are by far the most publicly intensive.

This is an intriguing tidbit since both have now made 2015 the first year ever with two Pixar releases. It’s a bold move that I believe says more about the animation firm’s fear of audience disapproval than confidence. Just look at The Good Dinosaur‘s rather innocuous marketing campaign compared to Inside Out‘s summer onslaught. You’d assume its Disney breathing a sigh of relief that their early release did well enough to not risk ruining its Oscar chances by splitting the votes with an equally brilliant film. But maybe the truth is closer to a major studio cutting its losses after realizing the second entry will never match its predecessor’s success. I’m not saying The Good Dinosaur should have been scrapped, just that it’s devoid of mass appeal.

I’d call the end result “art house” Pixar—a hybrid of Finding Nemo‘s road adventure comedy with the poetry of WALL•E‘s quiet introspection. The story is itself about fear and the overcoming of that emotion by the runt of Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Ida’s (Frances McDormand) Apatosaurus litter named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa). We all know the only way to conquer nightmare is to face it head-on so saying Arlo’s journey through the wilderness of a pre-historic Earth left unblemished by our own extinction-point meteor is dark and painful would be an understatement. First comes the ever-present gut-punch of a death a la The Lion King and then a series of concussion-riddled, PTSD-conjuring trials and tribulations where mortal peril forever looms above, ready to pounce.

Who does the film ultimately target then? It’s way too esoteric for children to appreciate a subtle message that goes beyond mere friendship between Arlo and young cave-child Spot (Jack Bright) and the character design and humor too hokey for adults. It therefore exists in a purgatory of specified tastes generally reserved to the independent cinema crowd—not the mainstream audience base that serves as Disney/Pixar’s lifeblood. The critical death scene sending Arlo into action is an acceptable moment of grief, but the myriad instances of head trauma and tense storms wherein lightning and floods risk killing all onscreen might go too far. I love that they did—it’s an invigorating change of pace—but it’s going to detract many parents from feeling satisfied about bringing their kids.

Taking a page from Dumbo, Meg LeFauve‘s (who also scribed Inside Out) screenplay even includes a hallucinatory sequence after Arlo and Spot eat spoiled, fermented fruit. I don’t mean a quick, goofy scene where they’re giggling either. The two are transformed into grotesquely hilarious versions of themselves while prancing down the hillside looking like demented creatures out of “Adventure Time”. The kids in the audience went wild, but they’ll surely have some questions about what went on. But that’s The Good Dinosaur: a series of authentic depictions of nature’s darker corners loosely connected by the goal of Arlo returning home. Drugs, crazed carnivores (Steve Zahn‘s Thunderclap), and leisurely cowboys offering sage wisdom and horrific tales of danger (Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, and A.J. Buckley‘s T-Rex ranchers) await them.

Will Arlo make it back? Will he save little Spot despite being originally tasked to kill him? (He’s the vermin eating the Apatosaurus farming family’s stock of corn.) Arlo has to or else he’ll never be able to leave his mark—figuratively and literally—on a pile of stones Mom, Dad, Libby (Maleah Nipay-Padilla), and Buck (Marcus Scribner) already stamped. So it’s about finding oneself, conquering debilitating fear, and becoming a hero of empathetic compassion. Yes the band of pterodactyls is formidable and destructive, but they aren’t some grand enemy hoard that Arlo must defeat. There isn’t an antagonist at all besides life and self-worth. You can’t even call nature an enemy since it simultaneously supplies the means for survival. Life is tragic and Arlo isn’t exempt.

It’s a simple conceit that may be boring or underwhelming, but don’t call it irrelevant. I’ll admit unexpected is apt, though, and The Good Dinosaur probably needs some patience to facilitate subsequent viewings for a full appreciation of everything it has to offer. On first blush it’s merely a sumptuous experience—an emotive bit of abstract humanity told without the need of plot. While the unparalleled animation looking as though the dinosaurs are painted atop real footage of water, dirt, and clouds may be enough for some, I don’t think it will be for children. Spot is super adorable acting as a feral dog and Arlo is extremely huggable so merchandising will definitely pique their interest. It just may take a few years for them to dig deeper.

courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

One Thought to “REVIEW: The Good Dinosaur [2015]”

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