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Non-Review Review: The Good Dinosaur

It may have been too much to hope for two classic Pixar films in the space of a single calendar year.

The Good Dinosaur is generally quite solid, but it lacks the sense of narrative craft and emotional weight that marks the very best of Pixar’s output. As with Brave before it, there is a sense that The Good Dinosaur would have made for a fairly middling entry in the larger Disney canon. In terms of ranking the studio’s output, “the good Dinosaur” is perhaps a fairly apt label for the project. It is light-hearted and fun, but lacking any distinct sense of substance and identity.

Bad human! Bad!

Bad human! Bad!

The best thing about The Good Dinosaur is its core concept. At the heart of the story is a rather ingenious narrative hook. What if the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs… missed? What if that hunk of rock that came hurdling through space had come in at an angle just a couple of degrees off course? What if it were simply a shooting star passing through the sky one night rather than a full stop marking the end of the Cretaceous period or the Mesozoic era? That is a wonderful jumping-off point for an adventure, and The Good Dinosaur never quite measures up to that.

The Good Dinosaur is ultimately a buddy comedy road trip adventure about a young child who finds himself stranded far from home with an unlikely travelling companion. The result is an occasionally enjoyable, if not entirely satisfying, film.

I am dino, hear me roar!

I am dino, hear me roar!

As with the other Pixar films, the animation on The Good Dinosaur is impressive. However, there is something of a dissonance between the character designs and the world they inhabit. Computer-generated animation is an artform that typically skirts the edge of the uncanny valley; there debates to be had as to whether computer-generated animation should aspire towards photo-realism or should embrace the stylised approach that distinguishes so much iconic and classic hand-drawn animation.

The Good Dinosaur seems to aspire towards the best of both worlds. The environments on display throughout the film are impressive. There are several impressive establishing shots in The Good Dinosaur that could be convincingly woven into a live action film. The Good Dinosaur offers an impressively realistic depiction of nature. The trees and the crops appear striking, whether in the background or the foreground. The water behaves convincingly and even the grains of grass move in a way that seems very naturalistic.

Rock out...

Rock out…

It is a fantastic technical accomplishment, something that is very easily forgotten in the modern era of computer-generated animation; audiences have so much of what computer-generated animation can do that it is easy to forget the striking beauty that it can create. The backgrounds and environments of The Good Dinosaur are very convincing and effective, offering a stunning emulation of the natural world through which its characters may travel. However, it is those characters who cause the problems.

The animated characters at the heart of The Good Dinosaur are heavily stylised. Arlo, the central character, looks more like a sentient happy meal toy than anything that would appear in Jurassic World. Spot, Arlo’s unlikely human companion, looks like the heavily stylised human character from so many classic Pixar films. Indeed, Pixar have often favoured stylised character designs over authentic reproduction, avodiing the issue of the uncanny valley. This has not been a bad before, and it is not a bad choice here.

A rocky path...

A rocky path…

There are a number of inspired design choices. A family of T-Rex ranchers gallop as if riding on horseback, the patriarch voiced by Sam Elliot. A bunch of predatory pterodactyls have bone protrusions that consciously resemble pirates’ hats. A cross-eyed styracosaurus is able to convincingly pass as a tree trunk. A bunch of velociraptors (“rustlers”) actually have feathers on them, a nice nod to paleontological findings that have yet to bubble over to that gigantic dinosaur franchise; however, they are also consciously designed to seem like hicks.

The problem is not the character designs themselves; the issue is how weirdly they seem to mesh with the more photorealistic world around them. Shots of trees and rivers look like they could unfold in the real world, only for characters to puncture holes in cloud cover and engage in comic slapstick around them. The climax features a delightful and inspired homage to Jaws involving the cloud cover. It feels like The Good Dinosaur is never entirely sure whether it wants to be stylised adventure or photorealistic drama.

Where the buffalo roamed...

Where the buffalo roamed…

This problem bubbles through into the script. The Good Dinosaur occasionally feels stitched together. On the one hand, there is clear structure to the story; Arlo is a young dinosaur who suffers a tragedy and gets separated from his family. Arlo has to make the journey home before winter arrives and his family starves. The first half-hour runs through a collection of familiar tropes. Arlo is weak, but sincere. His father has high expectations, while remaining sympathetic. Arlo’s journey into adulthood is tracked using the simple metaphor of “making his mark.”

It is all very familiar, but not ineffective for that. The first act provides a lot of set-up, some of which feels blatantly cribbed from other more iconic Disney films. However, the benefit of all of that set-up in the first act would seem to be a very clear objective for Arlo. When Arlo is separated from his family, he has to cross a dangerous mountain range and make his way home. Along the way, he befriends a young human who was menacing the family farm. At the same time, his family are struggling to provide for winter; Arlo has to get home to help.

A healthy glow...

A healthy glow…

This is all very logical and organic set-up that would seem to be building towards a linear story structure. Instead, The Good Dinosaur ignores all of that set-up, getting comfortable with a series of relatively episodic adventures as Arlo makes his way home. Plot points are forgotten and brushed aside. The mountains that seemed so formidable at the start are traversed via montage; the danger to the family if Arlo does not make it home in time is all but forgotten. Instead, The Good Dinosaur just follows Arlo as he wanders through the wilderness.

The Good Dinosaur works best as a series of episodic adventures, many of which culminate in action setpieces. Trying to find his way back home, Arlo encounters all manner of strange characters, and these interactions are often fun to watch. It is hard to hate a film that finds room for Sam Elliot as a buffalo-wrangling T-Rex with all manner of great fireside stories. This is the catch; many of the fringe characters of The Good Dinosaur are more memorable than Arlo and his family (and his companion). Arlo is not a strong enough throughline.

Back on track...

Back on track…

It is possible to blend a conventional and linear journey narrative with a series of engaging episodic adventures. Finding Nemo might be the best example of this, as Marlin and Dori encounter all sorts of weird souls on their attempt to reunite with the eponymous lost child. As fun as those adventures might be, it is the emotional connection between Marlin and Nemo (and later Marlin and Dori) that provides the heft tha the story needs. The Good Dinosaur invests a lot of time in setting up that heft, but never employs it.

(There are more basic storytelling problems. Logically, there is a very clear point at which Arlo should become separated from his family; it is the point at which another trauma occurs. The only reason to divorce the separation from the trauma itself would be to allow the characters to properly process and work through the trauma so that the separation can occur with Arlo in a different place, emotionally. However, The Good Dinosaur never justifies this decision, which leads to a weird five-minute loop to get Arlo back to where he should have been earlier.)

Sticking out...

Sticking out…

At only one hundred minutes, The Good Dinosaur never outstays its welcome. It breezes along, an enjoyable adventure packed with enjoyable characters and effective set pieces. However, it all feels rather intangible. There is no real emotion underpinning the story, no compelling narrative.

2 Responses

  1. Good overview! I like your point about the slightly incompatible blend of photo realism and cartoon elements. The movie works best when it focuses on the dynamic between Spot and Arlo and works less well when it is going through the side adventures. The western aesthetic was sometimes there, sometimes not. You can clearly feel the infamous production problems poking their heads through from time to time. Finding Nemo is a great counter example because the world building was much more solid whereas in Good Dino the encounters just feel like random one offs. Still, the movie was pleasant and funny and not truly bad in any way. Not exactly a classic but just a fun movie to take my toddler to.

    • Yep, I can go with that. It is better than Dinosaur by a considerable margin, so the name holds true! (That said, I kinda liked the side adventures, but the amount of set-up the central plot got before the movie got dragged into those side adventures threw me off quite a bit. If you were going to do episodic wandering, it might have been better to trim the first half-hour or so. I really loved the cross-eyed loner with all his companions.)

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