Starring the voices of Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Sam Elliott, Steve Zahn, Anna Paquin, Jeffrey Wright
Screenplay by Meg LeFauve
Directed by Peter Sohn
Rated PG (Violence, intensity, mayhem, crude humor)
Reviewed by Patrick Gibbs
20 years ago last week, the face of animation was changed forever when Disney-PIXAR gave us their debut film, Toy Story. Initially viewed as a gimmick or a novelty, this instant classic arguably impacted not only animation but film as a whole more than any other movie of the past two decades. After producing multiple classics, the ground breaking company turned mega empire seemed to be running out of ideas, until this summer's Inside Out was praised (and rightly so) as a strong contender for the studio's best film to date. After riding so high these past few months, some cynics have been skeptical that lightning could strike twice with the group releasing two major movies in one year, and some seriously doubted that The Good Dinosaur, a project that encountered so many troubles behind the scenes that the entire voice cast was fired and replaced with a fresh batch of actors, would deliver, and that it was too much to ask for another truly magical entry from Pixar this holiday season.
Sometimes, the cynics are right.
The new film is ostensibly set in "an altenate timeline" in which the Earth was never hit by by an asteroid, and dinosaurs never became extinct. If this sounds like an intriguing idea to you, prepare for a major letdown, because it goes absolutely nowhere. Instead of exploring the idea of these creatures evolving, or speculating as to how dinosaurs and humans could co-exist, this is merely a lazily inserted excuse to justify the lead character having a pet human kid. It's hard to watch the movie and not picture one executive listening to the pitch and saying "dinosaurs and humans never lived at the same time, you know," only to have the embarrassed writers, who probably grew up watching Caveman, grasping for an explanation that would save their premise, screaming "it's meant to be in an alternate timeline, jerkface!" and going home to have a good cry. The part that is harder to fathom is how John Lassiter ended up signing off on the follow up pitch that seems to have consisted of "It's E.T. and The Jungle Book meet The Grapes of Wrath, Little House on the Prairie and Deliverance, but there are dinosaurs!"
The story centers around Arlo, a young Apatosaurus who lives on a farm with his Mama and Papa and brother and sister. Arlo is the runt of the litter, and he wants to make his mark, literally: when a dinosaur comes of age, it dunks it's foot in mud and leaves an imprint above the door of the house. But Arlo can't seem to do anything right, and and after he can't go through with clubbing a human baby to death (one could almost hear Donald Trump saying "no wonder these things became extinct. I was clubbin' babies to death when I was four, and I didn't even have a reason. I'll bet dinosaurs weren't even born in this country."), Dad takes junior for a walk in the rain, and tragically, Mufasa is killed by a stampeding flood while Simba watches helplessly as we find our bored, wandering minds contemplating whether Jeremy Irons will make a good Alfred.
After this, things start to get grim, as Mama starts to worry that they will lose the farm. An angry Arlo loses it when he sees the man child whom he blames for his father's death, chasing him until they get hopelessly lost and run across a group of savage and carnivorous pteranadons, whose spokesman, Thunderclap, seems to be some sort of cult leader/religious fanatic (voiced capably but charmlessly by Steve Zahn.).
If this is starting to sound like a jumbled mess, that's only because it is. The story fares best when it centers on simplicity and understated interaction between Arlo and the boy, whom he names Spot. There are genuine moments here, and while these are hardly two of the great characters in Disney history, they are kind of cute together. There are also some pleasant sequences with a family of T-Rex (Sam Elliott abides as the father, and made the whole movie for me.). But whenever it gets caught up in being an unflinching portrayal of the hardships suffered by pioneers settling the American frontier, you have to wonder exactly who this is supposed to be aimed at and for that matter, why? It's too dark and violent for little ones, too slow for older kids, and frankly, there is really only one truly clever line in the entire picture.
You are probably getting the idea that I hated this movie. I did not.
1. There's an abundance of gorgeous imagery, primarily in the form of scenery. The water, and the deserts, are some of the most strikingly realistic work Pixar has ever done (although that makes the choice to make the dinosaurs themselves look so cartoonish and slap dash that they would seem more at home on a Disney Channel daily series than a major motion picture that much more questionable.).
2. The musical score by Michael Danna (Ang Lee's pet composer) is quite lovely
3. I don't think I am capable of genuinely hating an animated feature.
But forget comparing The Good Dinosaur to Inside Out. In fact, forget comparing it to The Croods. In the search for a high profile film that this really reminded me of, the best I could come up with was (get ready for this) Robots.
It's important to note that audience members leaving the free screening were walking out praising the film as one of the best they've seem in a while, or at least it would be if I had not been doing this long enough to know that people who are given free passes to an advance screening will say this about any movie from The Beverly Hillibillies to Battleship.
When it comes down to it, The Good Dinosaur is mildly diverting, mildly exciting, relatively cute when it's not being off-puttingly nasty, and it's bound to sell some toys. Kids seemed to really respond to the potty humor (not that there was a lot if it, but it got a huge reaction, possibly because there were so few moments to really laugh at) and again, some of the imagery is really astonishing. But at the same time, if I really feel the need to see what water looks like in 3D, I can fill up my bathtub for free.
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