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Film Review: The Good Dinosaur
In 2015, Peter Sohn released The Good Dinosaur, produced by Pixar Animation Studios. Starring Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Sam Elliot, Anna Paquin, A.J. Buckley, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn, Dave Boat, John Ratzenberger, Marcus Scribner, and Sohn, the film has grossed $195.6 million as of December 26 and is poised to become Pixar’s first theatrical flop. However, it has been nominated for the Annie Awards for Best Animated Feature, Outstanding Achievement in Animated Effects in an Animated Production, Outstanding Achievements in an Animated Production, Character Animation, Character Design, Music, Production Design and Storyboarding as well as a nomination for the Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature Film.
It’s an alternate universe where dinosaurs never went extinct and Arlo is the youngest of a family of Apatosaurus farmers. One day, he’s chasing a human child that has been eating from the family’s food stock. But he falls in to a river and is swept away by the current, causing him to team up with the child and face his fears as he finds his way home.
Coming off the heels of Inside Out, released earlier in 2015, and a troubled production that included numerous script rewrites and a cast overhaul six months prior to release, The Good Dinosaur doesn’t quite measure up to the standard that Pixar usually holds for its films. At least it doesn’t in terms of story as the animation is completely up to par when it comes to the backgrounds. The film revolving around a world where dinosaurs continue to rule the earth lends itself to grand, broad, sweeping shots of mountains, fields, valleys, and every type of geographic formation. All of the film’s backgrounds are nothing short of beautiful, making every scene visually pleasing to look at.
But while the backgrounds are done spectacularly well, the character designs leave a lot to be desired and really feel like the animators just went with the storyboard concept design drawings. Arlo and his family look half-finished and there’s nothing that really makes Spot stand out, making him seem rather generic, which is odd for Pixar. Take Monster’s Inc., where even the unnamed background characters have memorable character designs. Even all the cars in Cars looked special. Usually with Pixar, character designs tend to be one of the best parts of going to see the film.
Yet, character designs aren’t the only flaw the film has. Its failure to live up to its concept is its biggest fault. The film was marketed with the idea that this is a world where the comet that wiped out the dinosaurs missed and they didn’t go extinct. There are a whole lot of ideas and stories that can come from that, like taking it in a route that feels reminiscent of The Flintstones or maybe in the direction of having them coexist side-by-side in the present day, making dinosaurs and humans neighbors. But nothing like these directions or anything remotely similar is what the film went with. Instead, the only humans in the film are Spot and a family at the end and they’re cavepeople who act like dogs or wolves and are just critters to the dinosaurs. Further, there’s a noticeable lack of dinosaurs throughout the film. Sure, Arlo has his immediate family and he runs into a group of scavenging fliers, a trio of dinosaur ranchers and the rustling raptors that’ve taken their herd, and a mentally unstable Styracosaurus, but if dinosaurs are ruling the earth, with humans as nothing more than de facto packs of wolves, there should be a lot more dinosaurs roaming around the place and they should have gotten a lot more screen time. Said Styracosaurus featured heavily in the marketing and was only in the film for around five minutes. This is the first time Pixar has really failed to deliver on a concept and it’s a strange thing to accept.
Even the story Pixar went with is only moderately decent and mostly generic. Arlo finds himself separated from his family and has to learn to face his fears to find his way home, while bonding with Spot. It’s something that’s been done many times before and the only difference is that the dinosaur is the main character while the human is the pet. The message about fear is done pretty well, especially when Butch tells Arlo that he was afraid during the fight with the pack of crocodiles and if anyone wasn’t afraid in that situation, then they’re not alive. It’s a good point that fear is necessary, but that it also has to be overcome otherwise it’s crippling. The problem is that it’s tied with such an average story. The reason Toy Story and Inside Out succeeded with similar stories is because they did something much different, like personifying a boy’s toys or a girl’s emotions. Dinosaurs as main characters has been done in much better ways. The Land Before Time and the Dinosaurs TV series being prime examples.
The humor presented in this film is also all over the place, ranging from hilarious to grotesque to bizarre and out of place. Some of it is good, like Spot making Arlo into a living bridge or the entirety of Forrest Woodbrush’s scene, with him introducing the cute animals with savage names that protect him. Some of the humor is also bizarre and a little too grotesque for a children’s film, like when Spot rips the head off a beetle he’s giving to Arlo. Thunderclap and his group are humorous for adults, but the bait and switch style humor that erupts from eating the “free critter” is also a little too intense for kids. The worst humorous moment in this film is when Spot and Arlo eat the old, fermented fruit. What develops is evocative of a drug trip and it’s meant to humorously convey the two of them bonding. But the kids aren’t going to get it and the scene just comes out of nowhere and leaves just as quickly, making it pointless for adults. Showing Spot and Arlo bond is one thing, but having them do so in such a strange way that is nonsensical to the kids and pointless to the adults isn’t the way to do it.
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