Movie Review: The Good Dinosaur
By Ben Gruchow
December 2, 2015
Here’s an interesting twist on the curse of expectation, which has dogged more films this year than I really expected: a one-movie-a-year studio with a slipping reputation releases a film that’s such a massive critical and financial success that it pretty much instantly eradicates any doubt. Then that same studio puts out a second film five months later, one that’s been through a troubled two-year production history and on the chopping block more than once. To top things off, the reaction by the public on seeing the promotional materials and leading up to the movie’s release is…eh. It’s fine. Certainly nothing along the lines of what happened when that Finding Dory teaser dropped, but it’s been that kind of year; muted anticipation seems to be the name of the game for 2015.
And now The Good Dinosaur is out, and you have a chance to see it, and it’s…fine. It’s more or less exactly the film that was advertised, at any rate, and it could have been much worse than that film. Its issue is context. Pixar projects aren’t intended to be released and simply eat up 90 or so minutes of children’s lives with good animation; ever since Toy Story 2 and that Sarah McLachlan song, there’s been an expectation that the “great” Pixar movies are transcendent - and when a Pixar movie comes out and is merely good, like this one is, there’s a lingering sense of “Yeah, but…”
“Merely good” is a near-perfect descriptor of this movie, about a young anthropomorphized dinosaur named Arlo, who gets separated from his family of anthropomorphized dinosaurs, and must find his way back home. Along the way, he snags the intrusion and help of a young prehistoric child, who acts more like a loyal dog than anything else. Arlo names the kid Spot, and what’s set in motion is a simple story that’s not very different in its saccharine-free purity than The Peanuts Movie, or Shaun the Sheep. If you’re going to find issue with The Good Dinosaur, you won’t find it with its story; this is unabashedly about the difference between conquering your fears honestly and attempting to eradicate them with foolhardy abandon, and the conclusion the movie draws from that perspective is honest.
If you must find issue with the movie, you’ll do better to focus on how jagged and tonally dissonant the thing is, moment to moment; it has either the good sense or the good luck to conceal most of this under a air of general amiability, but you don’t have to look too hard to find places where the story and character development has been grafted and re-grafted—or, in some places, divorced from continuity altogether (a scene involving rotted fruit and its perceptual effects on the protagonists may have been a neat way of experimenting with character meshes from a somewhat-artistic viewpoint, but it throws the brakes on any momentum the story’s had to that point).
There are moments where we are on the verge of emotional discovery or catharsis - a big part of the character journey involves the quintessential Disney absence of parental figures, usually through the death of one or both of them—only to retreat into safer, tamer space. And there’s a long stretch of the film involving tyrannosaurs as buffalo herders (yes, you read that right) that seems to have bumbled in from a different, lesser animated film; it’s bright and cheerful, and the lead tyrannosaur is voiced by Sam Elliott with conviction if not persuasion, but it doesn’t fit at all with the surrounding world and incident. They don’t really amount to anything; once their screen time has elapsed, we pick up more or less where we left off (absent some antagonists that feel distinctly like a plot device). We shouldn’t mark off a Pixar film for having a simple, easily-digestible storyline once in a while, but we’ve every inkling of history to expect smarter, fleeter construction of that storyline than what we see here.
And yet, every time I start to think that the movie’s flubs at the level of basic storytelling are really a problem, the space for complaining ends up being occupied by something the movie does right: the simple and elegant visualization of family, or the malevolent near-sentience of a flooding river, or the subtleties of the character’s facial expressions. Or I can just sit back and think about the sheer detail and scope of the movie’s settings. The movie’s sense of reality is extraordinarily persuasive. The character designs take some getting used to, and I was initially irritated by the juxtaposition of the rounded-off, cartoony characters populating a photorealistic world—but the look of it won me over fairly quickly. There aren’t many animated films that would take this kind of visual risk, and it’s paid off here.
Where does The Good Dinosaur sit in the Pixar lexicon? I think it’s fair to consider it as a product of its original time, and how it would have perhaps been received last year or in 2013. Considered as a 2015 release, it throws well under last summer’s Inside Out for inventiveness and depth of feeling. It should be fairly clear at this point, though, that Inside Out is the exception instead of the rule, even within the context of Pixar’s generally high level of quality. It would be enormously unfair to expect every project to hit that lofty of a target. This one deserves to rank ahead of Monsters University, Cars and its sequel, and just behind A Bug’s Life. The movie whiffs on substantive storytelling and characters, but I still find it passing the litmus test that no Pixar film has yet really failed: how egregious its flaws are when considered independently of the Pixar label, or against a non-Pixar CGI animated film. I just wish I didn’t have to keep reminding myself of that while watching it.