The Good Dinosaur is Pixar’s 16th feature film, released over a year after it was initially scheduled to, with a complete voice cast and director upheaval around eleven months prior to its release… But it’s Pixar, King of Animated Masterpieces – it can’t be that bad… right?
The long and short of it is that it’s not great. Coming from a Pixar fanatic I had every faith in The Good Dinosaur despite it being Peter Sohn’s directorial debut, despite the complete lack of marketing in general and despite it coming after the brilliance of Pixar’s summer release Inside Out. This faith has proved to be largely misplaced as Sohn offers a relatively tepid, despite beautiful outing.
Arlo is a dinosaur who is terrified of everything. He meets a feral, brave human boy when he is washed away from his home. Together they must get back as Arlo learns to overcome his fears. Yeah, so you know, you’ve probably seen this kind of thing before.
We may as well start on a positive number; the animated environment of the film rarely even looks like it’s animated. The photo realistic backdrops of mountains, sunsets and rivers are awe-inspiring. Yet, when it’s inhabited by what looks like paint by number dinosaurs and a texture-deprived human, you’ve got to ask yourself what kind of candy coated nightmare was our world before the asteroid hit? You can’t overlook the attention to detail in the world though, Pixar is at its most visually rich here, maybe nature is the film’s greatest character.
But that’s saying something, isn’t it? When your film has so many characters it’s hard to keep track of, you’d think at least one of them would prove a greater personality than nature; after all, they do have the advantage (or it would seem, disadvantage) of being able to convey dialogue. The writing, whilst showing flashes of Pixar’s sentimental brilliance, is largely deriviative in a story that seems patronizing even to young children. Pixar are known for brave, outlandish plots that strike the very core of what it is to be human. It turns out, finding out what it is to be dinosaur is nowhere near as interesting as we get a tick-box coming of age story about learning to get over fear. It’s sweet, but in a melodramatic, solely for those under the age of five kind of way. A massive let down.
The poor writing extends to the characters; The Good Dinosaur most closely represents Finding Nemo as a ‘find x’ driven narrative where our protagonists meet several characters on the way. The difference between the two is that all of Nemo’s side characters in some way serve to develop the story and/or protagonists. The turtles, Marlin and sharks all teach Marlin to let go; none of the characters in Dinosaur to much more for the story other than add an extra five minutes of moderately entertaining quirkiness, including Sohn’s own voice cameo as a whacky triceratops that acts solely as a mouthpiece to spell out Arlo and Spot’s relationship for us. Derivative. The pterodactyls are moderately interesting in their schizophrenic savagery, but only because they harken back to the likes of Hopper in A Bug’s Life.
Arlo and Spot are also a relatively positive aspect of the film. The most ingenuity comes from the role reversal of the human spot acting like a pet dog; he’s cute and a poignant scene threatens to strike our hearts for the protagonists as they express they unfortunate family situations. But, as with most things here, it’s underdeveloped. As the plot to get home feels rushed with disjointed encounters, there’s little time for us to feel for the two. Also, there’s an unreasonably large amount of focus on farming. Okay, it was cool to see how handless dinos went about their farming business, but T Rex’s farming long horns? Hillbilly Velociraptors? Surely this kind of stuff isn’t interesting enough to drive a story? It isn’t.
As said earlier, the story remains firmly for the kids, but it can’t even be the kids when the film is full of genuinely frightening and graphic scenes. Bugs getting their heads bit off, stories of drowning crocodiles in their own blood and an admittedly hilarious scene where Arlo and Spot hallucinate on some dodgy, LSD-like berries. Funny for me, but for kids and their parents? Oh dear, who let that slip through the British Board of Classification?
It’s tremendously disappointing from a company who rarely disappoints, but does so more and more in recent times. What are even more disturbing are the monumental misjudgments of tone. But the worst sin committed here is that the writers of a company so dedicated to touching the hearts of their audience have given the go ahead to something that would likely be torn to pieces in my own creative writing seminar.
It’s beautiful, and its sweet if you shut your mind off, but why should we have to?