Previously on Movie Curiosities…
Words can’t describe how good it is to see Pixar returning to form. So what’s next? *checks Wikipedia* Something called The Good Dinosaur, set to be released this November. After getting delayed for a year and a half. And changing directors. And changing producers. And replacing the musical composer. Pretty much the entire voice cast was swapped out midway through production as well. And I see that nobody’s been credited for the finished screenplay just yet.
That was from my review of Inside Out, written and published a mere six months ago. Yes, The Good Dinosaur looked like a potential train wreck only as recently as a month or two ago. After Pixar’s unmitigated triumph with Inside Out and their long-awaited return to form after a year’s absence, I was genuinely worried that Inside Out was merely a fluke and Pixar’s lamentable slump wasn’t over yet.
It turns out I needn’t have worried. Inside Out wasn’t the fluke — this one was.
We open with the premise of an alternate timeline in which the K-Pg extinction event never happened. Cut to 65 million years after that narrow miss, when dinosaurs have evolved into the dominant life forms on Earth, and humans are still feral creatures barely much more than cavemen.
So, yeah, this movie’s got problems right out of the gate.
To start with, we’ve got the sheer impossibility of humans and dinosaurs ever living side by side. Never mind the idea that carnivorous dinosaurs and herbivorous dinosaurs could peacefully live together. Secondly, the world still looks like a pristine natural paradise 65 million years later. Yet we can see for ourselves that the dinosaurs have developed sentient thought and the capacity for eloquent speech, plus they’ve figured out how to farm vegetables and cattle.
And that’s as far as dinosaurs have gotten after so many millions of years. There’s no sign of any dinosaur cities. No roads or bridges. No technology more advanced than a large stick. No economy or trade of any kind. And perhaps most importantly, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of government or laws in place. That’s a particularly huge problem, given how the dinosaurs in this movie talk so casually about murdering each other.
What may be worse is that the dinosaurs talk even more casually about killing other animals. That may not sound like much of a problem, until you remember that this is a movie in which our main characters are animals. We can clearly see that dinosaurs are sentient and humans are sentient, so where’s the line drawn at murder? For all we know, the fox that was gulped down in one bite could be every bit as autonomous and entitled to its own life as either of our main characters.
We’ll get back to that point later. For right now, it’s probably best to assume that this movie runs on Cars logic: There’s no rational way that this movie’s world makes any kind of sense and there’s no point trying to figure out how the world got this way. So it’s probably better not to think about the premise too hard, don’t ask too many questions, and just move on.
Anyway, our protagonist is Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), a young Apatosaurus born into a family of farmers. He’s brought up by his parents (voiced by Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand), both of whom are strong parental figures who provide Arlo with all sorts of sage and loving wisdom and this is a Disney/Pixar film.
…*sigh* Okay, you all know what’s coming. So I timed it: The death scene happens 20 minutes in. Almost to the second. Precisely. Like fucking clockwork.
A bit later on, Arlo gets swept up in another tragic accident and winds up a very long ways from home. He’s befriended by a young human (later named “Spot” and voiced by Jack Bright), and the two of them strike up a kind of friendship on the journey home. Though Spot tends to act more like a pet than a partner or a friend, so this is really more of a “boy and his dog” story.
But here’s the problem with Arlo: He’s a coward. To be perfectly blunt about it, he’s a wimp. I get that Arlo means well and he wants to do right by his family, and I give him sympathy for that. Even so, it’s hard to cheer for a protagonist who’s deathly afraid of everything he sees. And I do mean EVERYTHING. Anytime Arlo sees something new, no matter what it is, his first reaction is to literally run away screaming. Not only does it render the protagonist hopelessly ineffectual, but it gets so tiring and annoying and boring to see this happen over and over and over again.
Arlo does eventually learn to have some courage, because of course that’s the development arc of this character, but he never even starts to show the slightest bit of a spine until an hour in. Again, I timed it: One hour. Almost to the second. Precisely. Like fucking clockwork.
To be clear, it’s not like Arlo is afraid to kill because he’s too compassionate or because he’d feel guilt over taking a life. No, no — the first time he meets Spot, we clearly see that Arlo won’t kill because he’s genuinely terrified of this young boy. Who’s small enough for Arlo to step on. Also, Spot is trapped in a net, unable to go anywhere or hurt anyone. So Arlo doesn’t come out looking noble or virtuous so much as he comes out looking like gutless worm.
The movie’s attitude toward death and violence is frankly quite disturbing. There’s never any talk about killing in self-defense or guilt for taking a life or any consequences of killing a fellow sentient being. It’s all nothing more than “kill or be killed” and bragging about the fights that characters have survived. There are way too many times when the film depicts graphic and violent (yet bloodless) deaths onscreen, and when somebody is lecturing Arlo about the strength to work through his fears, it all too often means working up the courage to take a life.
I mean, I get that the world has to be presented as a big scary place for the central theme of courage to work. And yes, we’re talking about giant predatory lizards, so it makes a lot of sense that they’d think in these “law of the jungle” terms. But again, these are supposed to be dinosaurs who’ve had 65 million years of evolution. These are dinosaurs who’ve learned how to independently think and eloquently speak. And not a single one of them has figured out that killing each other for food or sport is morally wrong? Especially when dinosaurs have figured out how to herd cattle to get their meat? I call bullshit. There’s just no way. Mankind figured that out ages ago, and these bastards got a head start!
I understand that Pixar was trying to teach a lesson about overcoming fear, and teaching kids about standing up for themselves is a perfectly good moral. But any healthy lesson about violence — especially for kids — must be tempered with messages about consequences and good judgment. To do otherwise would be terribly irresponsible, and probably darker than most kids could handle.
Oh, and did I mention that Spot befriends the Apatosaurus who’s still trying to kill him? Well, he does. Because the plot says he had to.
To recap: we have a useless protagonist, a setting and premise that make no sense, some questionable morals, and a rote plot with cliched story beats that you could literally set your watch to. So what keeps this movie watchable? One word: Presentation.
The animation in this movie is mind-blowingly good. Every single backdrop is so intricately rendered and so close to realistic that I swear I could practically smell the outdoors. The character designs may look cartoonish and exaggerated at first glance, but then we see the characters up close and the detail on them is staggering. Also, I can’t begin to stress how crucial it is that the characters had exaggerated faces with highly expressive features.
There are so many times throughout the picture when the filmmakers at Pixar prove themselves to be grandmasters at visual storytelling. It was fantastic to see how many ways Pixar could convey information and get the audience hooked without a single word of dialogue spoken. The characters are so superbly animated, with such beautifully expressive faces, that a simple shot of two characters looking at each other could provide us with enough story to power a whole scene. Credit must also be given to composers Jeff and Mychael Danna, who turn in such a magnificent score that anyone with a beating heart would be moved to tears upon listening to it.
And of course, Pixar’s trademark sense of humor does the movie all kinds of favors. There are so many side characters (most notably Arlo’s siblings, voiced by Marcus Scribner and Maleah Padilla) who would have had absolutely nothing memorable about them if they didn’t get a few jokes in. By a similar token, major kudos are due to everyone in the voice cast, all of whom turn in sterling performances from start to finish. Hell, I didn’t even get started on Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, and A.J. Buckley as a family of cattle-herding T-Rexes. I frankly wish that they had more screen time and better characters to work with.
(Side note: It bears mentioning that the film is preceded with one of Pixar’s soon-to-be-Oscar-nominated short films. This one is titled “Sanjay’s Super Team”, based on the actual childhood relationship between director Sanjay Patel and his father. The boy wants to watch superhero cartoons, the father wants to carry out his Hindu meditations, and the two of them get merged together in the boy’s hyperactive imagination. It’s… um… weird. Beautiful, but weird. Much like the feature film, I’m sure it was a better idea on paper than in execution.)
A Good Dinosaur is a maddening film, because it had absolutely everything in place except a script. It’s so abundantly obvious that everyone behind the scenes put in a ton of effort trying to salvage what they could, as evidenced by the superb voice acting, the incredible score, and the animation that defies description. But it’s tough to ignore the huge cast and crew turnovers that happened in production, not to mention the list of five — FIVE! — credited story writers.
It’s clear to see that the folks at Pixar had this brilliant idea for a movie and no idea of what to do with it. Thus we ended up with the most predictable and formulaic plot possible, served with a side of half-baked themes. If it wasn’t for the incredible visual storytelling skill of the Pixar filmmakers, this movie would’ve had nothing. As it is, there’s no way I can recommend this while The Peanuts Movie is still in theaters.