The Good Dinosaur
Peter Sohn’s The Good Dinosaur marks Pixar’s second film release of 2015 and delivers a very different experience from the earlier effort, Inside Out.
The premise here is that the dinosaurs were never wiped out by a meteor and continued to evolve after that. Our introduction to the story shows an Apatosaurus making use of some really creative farming techniques as his wife announces that their eggs are due to hatch.
Once the hatching is done the film skips ahead and shows that the protagonist Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) is very much the runt of the litter as shown by him being visibly smaller than his siblings as well as struggling with some of the more simple tasks. Naturally he is constantly teased by his siblings and has a steely determination to prove himself without the physical fortitude to back it up. His father (Jeffrey Wright) and mother (Frances McDormand) are both very supportive and encourage him every way possible but Arlo really struggles.
This prologue section takes far too long to get through and doesn’t ever bring anything interesting to the table. Arlo’s interactions with his father are pretty standard “I know you can do this” stuff and everything progresses far too slowly. For a better example of a “coming of age” story see The Lion King where the Simba/Mufasa relationship feels far less forced.
Once an accident causes Arlo’s father to die the film really begins as he finds himself separated from his family and has the simple objective of finding his way home. This results in an adventure where his bravery is tested and he is forced to learn how to make it on his own with his father’s words ringing in his ears.
If it sounds like standard fare that’s because it is. The film even has the guilt associated with feeling responsible for the death of his father to motivate him. I don’t want to spend the whole review comparing this to The Lion King but it genuinely feels like a less effective version of that same story.
One thing the film really fails to impress on is the supporting characters. The most memorable are a group of T-Rexes led by an older one named Butch (Sam Elliott) who help Arlo become more brave and help his confidence by encouraging him to push himself. It’s all pretty on the nose but these scenes were pretty entertaining while they lasted. They aren’t developed as well as they could be and disappear far too quickly.
There is an attempt at a villain with a group of Pterodactyls lead by Thunderclap (Steve Zahn) who feed on weaker creatures once a storm has hit. The idea is that they have been driven insane by surviving a particularly nasty storm sometime in the past. It’s a good idea but Thunderclap and his henchmen don’t feature enough to feel like a significant threat.
The central relationship is between Arlo and a young human caveboy he names Spot (Jack Bright). Despite the fact that Spot is incapable of speech the film manages to develop the growing connection between these two characters really well. There is a particularly moving scene where Arlo and Spot explain their family situations and tragedies using only the ground and some sticks. It communicates the situation perfectly and puts it all across better than words ever could.
Pixar films usually come with a solid expectation that the experience will be far better than the average animated film. In many cases this is true and the results are often outstanding such as any film in the Toy Story series, Up or this year’s Inside Out. There are some missteps for me such as Cars or Brave but for the most part Pixar can be counted on to deliver something great.
This film falls into the “it’s alright” category without achieving much more than that. I’ve mentioned that the story is a bit by the numbers and has been done better elsewhere. This is also true of the characters who never feel especially deep. Arlo is a pretty annoying protagonist who is made more annoying when he refuses to learn certain lessons despite repeated opportunities. It’s also pretty poorly paced with absurdly long stretches of very little happening. I’m not sure how young children will react to these moments but there’s certainly plenty of scope for a bathroom break without missing anything.
Visually the film is incredible. The dinosaurs look distinct and cartoony while existing in a world that looks almost photo-realistic from the plants to the trees to the rivers. There are some great visual touches such as a journey through the clouded over mountains towards the end that includes a sinister looking Jaws reference involving Pterodactyl beaks. It’s a shame that the story doesn’t have more to it to match the gorgeous visuals.