Review: The Good Dinosaur
PLOT: In a world where the dinosaurs never went extinct, a young dinosaur named Arlo must team with a small, wild caveboy and find his way home after a tragedy separates him from the rest of his family.
REVIEW: Pixar is most appreciated for its story-first mantra, where the ingeniousness of the concept is accentuated by splendid visual worlds and cracking good voice talent. This past summer's INSIDE OUT was proof that the Disney-based company has no shortage of brilliant ideas up its sleeve (just when you might have thought it had exhausted most of them), and the colorful, bouncy world built around that story served to enhance it, not distract from it. There is never worry of style over substance with these guys.
Yet Pixar's latest, THE GOOD DINOSAUR, is their first original film since CARS where I believe the opposite is true: the story is fairly routine and predictable, but the visuals are so strong and memorable that the film works on a visceral level first and foremost, with plot and characterization taking a backseat. Let it be known, though, that THE GOOD DINOSAUR is a much better moviegoing experience than CARS, and I only bring that lackluster effort up for the sake of comparison. In reality, THE GOOD DINOSAUR shares more in common with a few of Disney's traditionally animated films like THE LION KING and THE JUNGLE BOOK: adventurous coming-of-age tales that imparted no-brainer moral lessons to children.
It actually may be their most magnificent looking picture to date. Imagining an American Northwest unsullied by the human race, the film's photorealistic environments - hearty plains, raging rivers, foreboding forests - look so there that you feel like you can reach out and brush them with your hand. It's simply a marvelous movie to stare at, every frame filled to the brim with gorgeous detail. The fact that the story taking place against this lush backdrop is as unsurprising and simple as you could imagine (especially coming from Pixar) doesn't take away from the overall exhilaration of the experience. It must be seen on as big of a screen as possible. Indeed, I think it's a must see.
The film's initial hook is that the fateful meteor that crashed into Earth all those millions of years ago, bringing about the extinction of the dinosaurs, actually just missed the planet, enabling the species to thrive throughout the ages. Our focus is on the family of Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), a timid apatosaurus and the runt of the litter, desperate to contribute something to his clan's farm as they prepare for the winter. (Yes, dinosaurs are farmers and ranchers and whatnot in this reality.) Easily frightened by even the most harmless of things - like the chickens he has to feed - Arlo is encouraged by his tender father Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) to "make his mark" on something in this world. That opportunity presents itself when he's tasked with catching the troublesome critter who's been snatching up all the corn lately, but even that task Arlo can't manage because he takes pity on the thing once it's cornered. The critter, it should be known, is a tiny but ravenous caveboy.
The caveboy ultimately escapes into the unknown land beyond the farm, and Poppa must take Arlo into the wilderness to not only nab the critter, but to build up his son's courage. An ill-timed storm throws a wrench into the plan in a big way when it causes a surge in the river and kills Poppa in a most LION KING-esque way. (Spoiler, sure, but this is a Disney film and you know all parents must die!) Stranded, scared and rather hopeless, Arlo is forced to journey home by himself. But his loneliness is short-lived, as the caveboy - soon to be known as Spot - joins him on his quest; a friendship is forged, dastardly enemies are encountered, rough terrain is traversed. And, would you believe it, Arlo finds an inner strength and sense of honor he didn't realize he possessed.
First, the complaints: Arlo isn't an especially enjoyable protagonist to follow, and indeed if the movie has a major fault it's that he's just too much of a mewling pushover to be appreciated. Imagine if Nemo were actually the main character in FINDING NEMO and you get the picture. I have no issue with presenting us with a wary young character unsure of his lot in life - Simba was a fine protagonist - but Arlo is almost too pitiful. If we're caught up in his adventure, it's because his is such a classic narrative, we can't help but be engaged. Being truthful, his co-lead Spot - who provides an endless amount of adorable comic relief - manages to have a much more poignant arc even while having no dialogue. At any given moment, we're more drawn to the feral little boy than we are the dorky dinosaur.
THE GOOD DINOSAUR doesn't have a great deal of stimulating supporting characters, which is also going against the Pixar way. A wonderful tangential sequence featuring a monotone styracosaurus and his bevy of woodland friends aside, the majority of the folks Arlo and Spot run into on their journey are very broadly drawn, most of them silly western stereotypes (Sam Elliot lends his recognizable drawl to a gruff T-Rex in the ultimate example of on-the-nose casting). The antagonists aren't very arresting either; in fact, the two sets of predatory animals that threaten our protagonists - a pack of raptors and a flock of pterodactyls - are incredibly similar in presentation and execution. Steve Zahn's loopy Thunderclap, a pterodactyl who thrives on helpless creatures, has a rather creepy intro, but he disappears for a long stretch, barely making a significant impression.
But director Peter Sohn and the magicians at Pixar are still masterful storytellers, and THE GOOD DINOSAUR contains many a superb sequence. The movie is best when it's dialogue-free; a touching interaction between Arlo and Spot as they wordlessly mourn their fallen loved ones is immensely more affecting than any moment where Arlo whines about his feelings. A glorious sprint through a flock of birds is as beautiful as anything you'll see in a movie this year - except for perhaps the scene where Arlo and Spot race through the clouds atop a mountain, a vision that literally made my jaw drop. Sohn may not have an easy grasp on characterization, but he's showing us some of the prettiest pictures in an animated movie we're ever likely to see. I couldn't help but want to watch it again immediately after it was over, just to bask in that world once more.
There is a surprising grimness to THE GOOD DINOSAUR frequently, something I was taken aback - and impressed - by. Arlo is put through the ringer, and then some; his trial by fire coming with all manner of terrifying ordeals: He almost drowns a handful of times, he falls down a countless number of cliffs, he's set upon by various toothy monsters ready to tear his flesh apart. We see him bruised and battered, knocked unconscious and close to death. All that in addition to seeing his father die, of course. For a movie that is, ostensibly, about an adorable boy and his dinosaur (or a dinosaur and his boy, if you prefer), THE GOOD DINOSAUR is often a harrowing adventure, and while you won't ever have to seriously wonder if Arlo is going to make it out of this thing alive, I found myself startled by just how far Sohn and company were willing to bash Arlo into the ground. He may not be a great character, but we sure as hell begin to sympathize with the poor guy as he's knocked down again and again.
THE GOOD DINOSAUR ultimately won't be mistaken for one of Pixar's masterpieces, not when every facet is considered and evaluated. (For my money, UP is still their greatest achievement.) But don't let its uncomplicated story and mediocre protagonist dissuade you; it's a dazzling thing to behold, certain to break down any resistance you may initially have. For all my gripes with it, I can't wait to see it again.
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