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Pixar Sundays: The Good Dinosaur (2015)

Like Brave, the trailer for The Good Dinosaur looked amazing! It sold a movie that was an epic tale of the fall of the dinosaurs and the dawn of humanity, perhaps some odyssey of evolution spanning ages. And of course after Inside Out, there was no reason to believe this trailer didn’t reflect what the movie would be, and that Pixar was once again back on track to making not only great, but revolutionary animated films.
But we were all bamboozled, because The Good Dinosaur sucked. It might be Pixar’s most disappointing film, certainly one of its most unoriginal. Given Pixar’s methods in the past of making movies that are either really unique or just blatantly marketable, The Good Dinosaur doesn’t fall into either, so I can’t imagine why they green-lit it.
Set in a world where the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs missed Earth, Arlo is the youngest runt in a family of apatosauruses. His father tells the kids the importance of earning their mark -a print in mud on the family silo for achieving something vaguely great -only for him to die shortly after. In his attempt to earn his mark and do good by his father, Arlo gets accidentally swept away by a river, ending up far from home. After some animosity on Arlo’s part, he teams up with a small primitive cave-boy, whom he names Spot, in order to survive and find his way back home.
The first thing worth mentioning is that this movie is set in a world where dinosaurs didn’t go extinct, but it might as well not have been. When you hear a concept like that, you think of some kind of reality where jurassic creatures live in modern times, like in ABC’s Dinosaurs or We’re Back: A Dinosaur Story. Though obviously it doesn’t have to be exactly that, in fact from Pixar, could definitely be more imaginative and interesting. But The Good Dinosaur barely distinguishes this premise. These dinosaurs are only marginally more evolved, to the point they’ve developed farming and agriculture but not much when it comes to modern notions of society and civilization, a direction which would have offered way more to explore. Maybe it’s trying to go for some kind of realism, but if it is, it’s not fulfilling enough and is too subtle to appear that different from any other dinosaur story. The only narrative point of the premise is to give dinosaurs and humans a reason to coexist that doesn’t necessarily come off as creationist. Thus going to the trouble of saying it’s set a million years after the asteroid feels like wasted opportunity.
That waste is even more apparent in the plot, which is one that’s been done to death. If the synopsis sounded familiar: that of a timid apatosaurus child losing a parent and then being forced to embark on a long journey home, then you’ve probably seen Don Bluth’s classic The Land Before Time. Arlo’s character arc in this movie as well, both physical and psychological, is just about exactly the same as Littlefoots’, only with less investment. Because of this, you’re constantly reminded this story was done better in 1988. And this isn’t the first time The Land Before Time has been ripped off: Disney’s Dinosaur is very similar, as is Blue Sky’s debut Ice Age, which is where this movie probably borrows the idea of the lead animal looking after a baby human. In that regard, the kid acting like a puppy is a joke that doesn’t get a lot of mileage. It’s a very basic conceit, and after a while is clearly just trying to look cute. But even with this role reversal, the journey of Arlo and Spot, and their relationship is every boy-and-his-pet movie cliché in the book. And neither has enough personality to make you care about their relationship. Compare it to another animated boy-and-his-pet movie, How to Train Your Dragon -which did a much better job of growing the relationship between it’s two central characters in a natural way that made the age-old premise feel distinct. The Good Dinosaur lacks that organic development, because it strays too often into distractions, and the journey belongs entirely to Arlo and ultimately making his mark. It’s the pet story where the owner is clearly more important and there’s a reason those don’t work.
While the film is overwrought with clichés and plodding story points you can see coming a mile away, there are some creative choices throughout. Unfortunately, those choices are bizarre beyond belief. At one point, Arlo and Spot meet a crazy Styracosaurus who keeps birds and small animals perched on his horns to ward off dangers. He’s a dose of comic relief that would be typical in some other animated movie, but comes out of nowhere here. It’s stranger too considering he’s the first other dinosaur Arlo meets. Then there are the only recurring villains Arlo comes across: a group of pterodactyls led by Steve Zahn, who are as eccentric as any group led by Steve Zahn would be. They’re weird cultists who seem to worship storms, constantly saying “the storm provides” with reference to the small critters they eat and they really just don’t belong here. For a time, Arlo and Spot become accomplices to a trio of Tyrannosaurs, Ramsey, and Nash, voiced by Anna Paquin and A.J. Buckley, and their father Butch, voiced by Sam Elliott. And I have to admit, a Sam Elliott Tyrannosaur is pretty cool. But they immediately derail the film to find a herd of buffaloes and it just becomes a western. Seriously, the T-Rex’s run along the plain intentionally in an equestrian fashion to mimic horse-riders and there’s no reason for it. Was this just because they got Sam Elliott? And when they finally reach the herd, they have to fight off a bunch of hillbilly raptors who’d wandered in from the set of Deliverance. The sequence is made out to be a character building one for Arlo, but it’s so strange and makes so little sense, he might as well have learned his lesson about overcoming fear by becoming a gladiator for a tribe of Parasaurs. There are also odd moments where the movie decides it wants to be dark. The death of Arlo’s father in a flood is fine; there’s genuine impact in the quick cut to black as the water hits him. But then there are Arlo’s interactions with the deranged pterodactyls, who set up a cute small animal as their pet before graphically devouring it (a scene that’s sure to traumatize at least some children), or who violently fight Arlo on a tempestuous river, tearing their wings in the process. Just like the rustlers and cowboy Tyrannosaurs, these moments really don’t fit with the tone the movie’s trying to present.
Arlo’s father is voiced by Jeffrey Wright (with a mother voiced by Frances McDormand) and he’s the purveyor of Arlo’s challenge. But much like Brave and that films’ idea about fate, this movie’s very vague in what it wants its meaning to be. Arlo is encouraged to “make his mark” and he has to earn it. But the parameters of what it takes aren’t clear, not out of ambiguity or transcendence, but rather a disinterest on the creators’ part to define it. The moral of the story is to face fears, to take responsibility, to be persistent, to love, etc. and presumably this is what earns Arlo’s mark. But his siblings got it for a lot less, what the hell?! More than once it feels like Arlo’s father is unfair towards him in his expectations, and in pushing him into something before he’s ready. But the scene where Arlo sees a ghost of his father is good, especially in the detail of how the father is presented, not leaving footprints and mostly facing away from his son. It’s obviously just there to bring closure to that relationship and give Arlo the obligatory last act incentive he didn’t necessarily need to rescue Spot, but it’s done fairly well.
There are other moments that are good too. In fact I admire that there are a few stretches where there’s little to no dialogue. Usually of course, they’re scenes between Arlo and Spot. The moment where the two convey to each other using sticks what they’re family situation is like and Spot reveals his parents are dead is a really good one, building if only briefly, a real connection. If there were more scenes like this it would be a better movie. It might also be a silent one, which this story suits perfectly (again, that was Bluth’s original intent for The Land Before Time, and none of his imitators were able to do it that way either). However, it says a lot about how fractured this movie is by the fact that the few moments it devotes time to fleshing out Arlo and Spot’s bond are in these scenes that are in short supply. But when they do appear, they’re nice. The firefly sequence is a pretty one, and the final parting between Arlo and Spot is one that, had it been earned, would have been really sweet.
The animation of The Good Dinosaur is both bad and good. The art design and backgrounds are wonderful, there are panning shots in this movie that are gorgeous. Like Blue Umbrella, it uses photo-realistic techniques to create a very vivid natural environment. In fact at times it almost looks like it is just the wilderness in British Columbia or the Canadian Shield being shot by a nature videographer. But the problem lies in the characters. They’re just too cartoony. The designs aren’t horrible, they’d definitely work in other kinds of animated films -hell they’d be right at home in an Ice Age movie. But against such a realistic and visually appeasing background, these exaggerated features and aesthetic diversities don’t match. It essentially looks like a CGI version of Roger Rabbit -that these are cartoon characters interacting in a real world. This movie needed designs more akin to Dinosaur, but upgraded. The music is quite good though -it is Mychael Danna after all.
The Good Dinosaur was directed by Peter Sohn, who’d been an animator and voice actor with Pixar for a while. It was his debut film too, and to his credit he does get a few things right, like half the animation and a series of good character moments between Arlo and Spot. But it’s set-up in a world where dinosaurs didn’t go extinct could’ve led to any one of dozens of original and challenging avenues. Instead Sohn chose to retell the same journey home story we’ve been getting for decades, and as a result, The Good Dinosaur is little more than the latest in a line of forgettable Land Before Time rip-offs.

Sanjay’s Super Team is another Pixar short that’s quickly become a favourite of mine. It’s inspired by the childhood of its writer and director, Sanjay Patel. The titular Sanjay is a young Indian boy whose interest is in a T.V. superhero. His father tries to get him to instead devote a little time to meditation at their Hindu shrine much to Sanjay’s chagrin. While being forced to pray, his mind wanders and he imagines being in a temple where the monstrous Ravana appears. Sanjay is able to use a feature on his action figure to light the temple candle, bringing to life three gods (Vishnu, Durga, and Hanuman) who fight off Ravana. When he comes back to the present, his father dismisses him, saddened, only to find he’s now included the Hindu gods among his fantasy “Super Team”. This short is captivating from start to finish. The animation is really nice to begin with, but in Sanjay’s imagination it’s absolutely stupendous! It’s neatly stylized, gloriously colourful, and energetic -sort of a hybrid of CG and traditional animation with a little bit of Samurai Jack. It’s a lot of fun, epic in its small way, and the action is great. And the message about the importance of honouring your cultural heritage in tandem with how personal it is to Patel (the ending shows him and his real-life father) makes it incredibly resonant. Far and away, it’s better than the movie that followed it, and after Night & Day, it’s probably my favourite Pixar short.

Next Week: Finding Dory (2016)

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