The Good Dinosaur
Pixar aim to go two for two in 2015 with this offering, hot on the heels of truly wonderful Inside Out. Making two films in the same year was always going to be a bit of a gamble, but seems to have been a natural result of The Good Dinosaur’s somewhat troubled production history, the film having gone through a near complete re-tool and re-casting in its development. Such things, par for the course from Disney operations – just take a look at the troubled history of The Emperor’s New Groove – can easily result in incoherent final products, more designed by committee than designed for brilliance. Could The Good Dinosaur leave up to its name, or would it be a step too far for Pixar?
In a world where dinosaurs never went extinct, Arlo (Raymond Achoa) is a young Apatosaurus living on his family’s farm, where he struggles to adapt to an agrarian lifestyle. After a terrible accident, Arlo is left stranded a long way from home, and embarks on a journey back, with only a feral human caveboy – “Spot” (Jack Bright) – to assist him. Together, the two face many dangers and meet many other wanderers, as they both struggle to make their mark.
Just about every Pixar film is about growing up, to some degree, but The Good Dinosaur might be the film that hits this thematic nail on the head the most. From Toy Story to Inside Out, we have followed characters seeking to grow and change, the process sometimes painful. In The Good Dinosaur, the process is a near literal one, as we follow Arlo’s physical and mental efforts to follow in his family’s footsteps, and better himself. Arlo’s quest to face his fears before they overcome him is hardly the most engaging message that Pixar have put out there, but the film has some tricks up its sleeve in that regard.
And this takes place is a very unique setting, which is just as well, as the actual narrative is fairly boilerplate. It’s very much a wild west story, with dinosaurs in the role of pioneering Americans, and human cavemen as the Natives. It’s so weirdly curious, seeing the human character in the sidekick/pet role, and the four legged creature as the main character, the dominant lifeform. The Good Dinosaur aims to turn perceptions of those beasts, so firmly ingrained by things like the lamentable Jurassic World this year, firmly on their head. Instead of the traditional villain role, here they are the cast, with wide and diverse range of personalities and characters, with feral Spot the wild animal who communicates only in barks, hisses and grunts. This contrast is what stops The Good Dinosaur from being a rather pedestrian affair, with the journey home plot and the buddy film elements the sort of thing that one will have seen time and again, with even Pixar pulling the same act in Inside Out relatively recently.
But if I had to compare The Good Dinosaur to any film I had seen this year, it would not be Inside Out, but Slow West, the Kodi Smit-Macphee and Michael Fassbender helmed jaunt through the “baking heart of America”. Both films are about journeys made by two contrasting characters in similar environments: both duos meet a variety of strange individuals along the way, with a certain fairy tale aspect in the different philosophies encountered and the lessons met. Both films have, at their heart, a question of growing friendship in perilous circumstances, with a finale where that friendship is put to the ultimate test. Slow West was a great film, and so is The Good Dinosaur: it is only natural that The Good Dinosaur, with its titular giant lizards and brand name, would attract a bit more attention.
As stated, the simplicity of things might grate, and certainly makes The Good Dinosaur a lesser experience the more you think on it. You’ll have seen all of this before, and certain sequences even go beyond that into the realm of “lifting”: The Good Dinosaur owes more than a little to the likes of The Lion King in both its central premise, general narrative, and a few select sequences early on: I won’t have been the only one thinking “Long live the King!” for a tragic moment in the first act. The film is wrapped in tropes and cliché, and just like any film with such issues, makes sure that everything is tidied up very neatly by the conclusion. In all that, the signs of a production reset are very much evident: in its plot, The Good Dinosaur does come off as something that was designed to be a little less daring than it could have been, a certain lack of ambition that things like WALL-E, Up and Inside Out did not share. The original concept was apparently about a community of dinosaurs that Arlo didn’t fit in with, and how he dealt with that situation. It sounds a little bit more interesting than the final result. You can smell the Blake Snyder treatment off The Good Dinosaur, and several sections, such as a dream sequence at the top of the third act that screams “All Is Lost/Dark Night Of The Soul”, will have you rolling your eyes more than a little bit.
But there are still many stand out sequences and moments also. The opening act, set in the Apatosaurus farm, is a nice little introduction to the universe, where the idea of giant dinosaurs operating a farm is something that the production doesn’t shy away from, instead wanting to depict exactly how such animals would accomplish such a feat. The story being told is a familiar one, but heavy with an emotional ache that any child wanting to live up to parental expectations will relate to. Here, the skill of the films script, penned by Inside Out’s Meg LeFauve, really starts to shine, dragging up the mundane story, as we follow Jeffrey Wright’s “Poppa” and Frances McDorman’s “Momma” in their early child-rearing. Wright is a particular revelation, giving a strong voice performance as the gruff father, that is both kindly emotional, but stern and demanding when the moment calls for it. His call for his children to seek a task, “greater than themselves” to accomplish, so that they can “make their mark” is the first of the films philosophical offerings, and comes off as a more nicely put version of Whiplash’s “good job” speech. Later, the script will go higher with Arlo’s musings on loss, Sam Elliot’s declarations on the nature of fear and some decent back and forth between the two leads.
The double tragedy that propels the film into its second act and central crux is what throws Arlo and Spot together, an unlikely double act that begin the long trek home. It’s here that The Good Dinosaur really starts to open up, introducing a few neat set-pieces and lots of interesting characters, even if most of them appear only briefly. There’s the Styracosaurus whose entire life is defined by fear; the predatory velociraptor pack out to make good on the sweat of others labour; the T-Rex’s who want to protect them and there’s, and the pterodactyl band whose time in the wilderness has been so all consuming that they are now embodiments of random destructive violence for the very sake of it. It’s episodic but engrossing.
The point of all of these encounters is to allow Arlo to change and to grow, to no longer be the terrified child he has been stuck being, but to follow more in the very sizable footsteps of his father, who so appropriately described a wilting Arlo as “all of me, and more” is a very poignant moment early on. The T-Rex pack and their herd of “longhorns” are at the heart of perhaps the films most memorable sequence, when all pretences are abandoned and The Good Dinosaur becomes an all-out western, as Arlo and friends go up against cattle rustlers, John Wayne style. Sam Elliot’s incredible voice work gives the sequence all of the ambiance and authority it needs, and I’m sure the dinosaur purists among us will appreciate seeing feathered velociraptors.
But I actually found “Thunderclap” – a decent turn by Steve Zahn – to be a bit more fascinating. I said in my review of Inside Out that the film could have used some kind of antagonist character to wrap the narrative around, and The Good Dinosaur does just that, with Arlo forced to face up to these truly terrifying creatures, that take on the guise of aerial sharks in one memorable moment. Thunderclap’s repeating mantra of “The storm provides” marks him out, even with his limited screentime, as one of Pixar’s best villains since Lotso: a crazed individual caught up in the barbarity of the setting, an avatar of the destructive nature that so terrifies Arlo, Reaver-like in his gleeful surrender to violence and mayhem. Of all the philosophies that Arlo encounters, his is easily the most repellent and shocking, and serves admirably as the basis for a dramatic finale.
The Good Dinosaur hits the required beats of change and growing up, but is also to be commended for essentially tackling what it is to be masculine in an environment where anything other than brute strength and authority is often punished, fatally. Another film that popped into my head was Sebastian Junger’s documentary The Last Patrol and its discussions on what makes a man a man in today’s society. The Good Dinosaur is clear: it goes beyond physical strength and authoritative demeanour, and is more in actions, righteousness and personal capability and confidence. It’s what Arlo so lacks in the stories beginning, and what the film portrays him as seeking when he is homeward bound.
I’ve mentioned most of the key players already, but some kudos must also be given to the two child actors that shouldered most of the narrative burden. Ochao is the kind of voice you might have encountered in numerous TV shows, and in the odd live-action appearance, but his performance here must be considered a breakout moment. His Arlo is wonderfully childlike in nearly every sound he makes, and Ochao manages to capture a real emotional fragility in this frequently terrified youngster who finds himself so far from safety. But maybe we should give a bit more praise to young Jack Bright, whose role of Spot had to be done without the benefit of actual words, but which still manages to get across everything that needed to be got across.
It’s almost pointless to talk about Pixar’s visual skill, but I’ll make an effort to get beyond the usual praise. The Good Dinosaur aims to showcase what is, essentially, a western American wilderness, in its forests, its rivers, its plains and its mountains, and does everything that is required. It is a story grounded in the often terrifying nature of such places, and that nature is portrayed vividly on-screen. But so much else is done well too: the designs of the various dinosaurs, the set-piece sequences (several underwater that were notably eye-catching) and a few things here and there that really seized your attention, like a brief drug trip when the wrong berries are consumed, or the repeated motif of blazing fireflies in flight. Throughout there is the same brash colour and life that so imbues nearly everything that Pixar does: they remain the titans of CGI animation, and I imagine they will remain that way for some time to come. On the musical side of things too, The Good Dinosaur succeeds, with Danna Brothers’ score adding the right emotional depth to every moment without ever becoming too noticeable.
(A Brief Sidebar: The film was preceded by another Pixar short, Sanjay’s Super Team. It was a tonne of fun, seeing this superhero battle erupt with this mythological figures. I was surprised, but actually very pleased, to see Pixar unashamedly depict such religious motifs and ideas on-screen, skilfully blending in modern pop-culture in with the most ancient of stories, showing that there are links to be found in all such things. And there was something very emotionally satisfying in the father-son bond in display, the dispute between modernity and tradition, and the reconciliation that could be found between them. It’s a short that obviously meant a great deal to the people who made it, and such things always add something special).
The Good Dinosaur wins when it comes to its general concept, does well with its voice cast, and soars with its visuals, script and more deep story-telling. The actual narrative is a fairly humdrum, predictable thing for the most part, and very little about it will truly surprise you, beyond a few surprisingly violent moments. Every Pixar film that comes out nowadays is already having to deal with what is, in fairness, an unreasonable weight of expectation created by all that the studio has made before, and The Good Dinosaur was further hamstrung by the unfortunate details of its rebooted production. But I feel that it mostly overcame these problems, to deliver a story that, while not being worthy of a place at the very top level of the Pixar canon, is good enough to justify its creation, and Pixar’s two-in-a-year strategy for 2015. The film’s financial struggles are disappointing to see, but may at least carry the silver lining of the studio going back to one a year, always preferable even if they have managed to come up with two great efforts in the last 12 months. On its own merits, I would say that The Good Dinosaur succeeds in being an entertaining story with a lot of great elements, and for that, I recommend it.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)