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Review: The Good Dinosaur (2015)

The Good Dinosaur (2015)

Directed by: Peter Sohn

Premise: An animated film in which a dinosaur named Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) is separated from his family. Arlo journeys home and along the way he befriends a primitive human boy (voice of Jack Bright).

What Works: The Good Dinosaur takes place in a hypothetical universe in which the meteorite that wiped out prehistoric life missed the Earth and dinosaurs and hominids coexist. That’s conveyed very effectively and entirely visually in the movie’s opening sequence. This is a Pixar movie and one of the consistent strengths of this studio has been their ability to convey story and gravitas without dialogue or narration. The most effective scenes of The Good Dinosaur are those nonverbal moments. Despite the many problems of this picture, The Good Dinosaur does possess a few exceptional sequences, namely the two set pieces in which characters are trapped in a flooding river valley. Pixar is known for the excellence of its animation and it should be said that the detail in the environments of The Good Dinosaur are extraordinary. The trees and rocks and water have a palpable visual texture and many shots could pass for photography as opposed to animation.

What Doesn’t: There is a strange dissonance in the visual style of The Good Dinosaur. The setting is rendered very realistically but the characters aren’t imagined in the same style. They frequently look cartoonish like a computer generated version of The Flintstones television show. That results in some strange, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?-like sequences as the cartoony characters interact amid a much more real background. The design of the characters in The Good Dinosaur impairs the movie’s gravitas. The visual style of cartoons gives them a unique story logic; the violence of a Road Runner cartoon is never permanent and therefore has very low stakes. Contrast that with the violence of Bambi in which the animal characters are subject to a much more realistic story world. The Good Dinosaur shifts between these different sensibilities, sometimes within the same scene; some of the action plays very realistically but in other places it’s cartoonish. The stylistic inconsistency between the characters and the setting keeps the viewer from settling into the story world and prevents us from taking the plight of the characters seriously. The movie also has a weird regard for the animal kingdom and The Good Dinosaur channels some of the obnoxious qualities of Disney’s animal adventures like The Jungle Book and The Lion King. In this picture the pterodactyls and the velociraptors are villains who eat other animals but a group of Tyrannosaurus Rexes befriend Arlo, an Apatosaurus, and escort him on part of his journey. Among the biggest problems of The Good Dinosaur is its lack of tension. The narrative is really slack. The Good Dinosaur repurposes the journey home premise that Pixar has used before in movies like Finding Nemo and Inside Out. In the successful iterations of that story the main characters learn something about themselves and the world and they must reach their destination before a critical deadline. The Good Dinosaur lacks both of those qualities. Neither Arlo nor his human companion have much of a personality; the dynamic between them is that of a lost boy and his dog (with the dinosaur the former and the human the latter) and the filmmakers don’t provide much of a character arc for either of them. Arlo spends the movie trying to get home but there aren’t many obstacles stopping him from doing that nor is there a compelling reason why he has to get back. For that matter, it’s quite strange that all the while Arlo is gone his family never bothers to go out looking for him.

Bottom Line: Pixar is often held to a higher standard than other Hollywood animation houses. The Good Dinosaur is certainly not up to the level of Toy Story but it also doesn’t even match the expectations of a DreamWorks Animation production like The Croods. The film was mired by some well publicized production problems and The Good Dinosaur suffers from too many conflicting creative visions.

Episode: #573 (December 13, 2015)