Disney-Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur asks the question: What if the asteroid that forever changed life on Earth missed the planet completely and giant dinosaurs never became extinct? An interesting question to ask and explore, but unfortunately one that The Good Dinosaur doesn’t spend too much time actually answering. Instead, we get a Boy and his Dog story but in this case, the boy is a dinosaur and the dog is a human boy. What is challenging as a viewer is determining what lesson specifically this film is trying to explore. This doesn’t necessarily make it a bad film, just one that is confused on what it ultimately wants to be. However, audiences will still leave the theater emotionally moved by this simple and relatable story, marking this as Pixar’s “sweet” sixteenth.
The titular good dinosaur is Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) who enters the world afraid of everything. Desperate to impress his family, he finds himself continually falling short. Shining a brighter light on his weaknesses are his siblings, Sister Libby and Brother Buck, who are more confident and bigger than he is. Looking “earn his mark,” Poppa (Jeffrey Wright), Arlo’s father who is always there for him, tasks him with catching a pesky critter. With a chance to prove his worth, Arlo squanders the opportunity when he can’t bring himself to kill the critter he’s captured (a human boy) and sets it free, much to the disappointment of his father.
Poppa’s subsequent tough-love lesson turns tragic, and Arlo has trouble coping placing all the blame on the critter. Arlo’s anger ultimately results in a major misstep that leaves him lost and far from home. His chances for survival in the wilderness are dubious until an unexpected ally shows up and lends a hand. The human boy, named Spot (Jack Bright), and Arlo form an unlikely friendship and embark on an eventful journey through the stunning but often unforgiving environments to get Arlo home. The duo encounters an array of intriguing characters, including raptors, pterodactyls, and a family of T-Rexes.
For anyone that follows Disney/Pixar films closely, they’ll find it hard to separate this film from its troubled development process. Originally intended to come out in theaters May 2014, the film lost its way and got pushed. If you’ve read Ed Catmull’s fantastic book Creativity Inc. (I highly recommend it for those that haven’t), then you’d know that this kind of story trouble occurs with every Pixar film. But in the case of The Good Dinosaur, the filmmakers found themselves significantly far along in the animation process with a wagon load of hype generated at the D23 expo the previous summer, and a story that wasn’t working. One could say they found themselves wedged between a prehistoric rock and due date. So with a year and a half left to deliver a film by Thanksgiving 2015, a new Director, Peter Sohn, was put in place to give fresh eyes to the project and deliver. So the real question is, “did the triage help?” – Absolutely.
What Sohn and his team of talented artists were able to create in such a short amount of time is great. It doesn’t quite reach legendary status as some of its predecessors, but it is certainly not the worst either. As hinted at before, The Good Dinosaur, at times, is just a bit confused as to the type of movie it wants to be. The title itself is somewhat dubious. Does it imply that Disney’s 2000 film Dinosaur is the “bad” dinosaur? Or perhaps it is referencing the family of Tyrannosaurus Rexes who, in this film, are actually benevolent creatures instead of their typical cinematic depictions. Regardless, a more fitting adjective for our lead character Arlo would be “fearless” or “brave” or, if you want to be alliterative, “dauntless.” The point being from the faulty tagline to the film’s title it is easy to suspect that these filmmakers were working within framework with a handful of unchangeable factors.
Thankfully the creative minds at Pixar are the best in the business and what they’ve created is a simple and emotional story about a Dinosaur and his pet boy who endure a treacherous journey and learn to face their fears. The plot does feel episodic at times with each scenario crafted to be a teaching moment for Arlo. There are also a couple of times where it feels like this film borrowed ideas from other Disney classics. The most obvious being The Lion King’s “Mufasa moment” and Dumbo “Pink Elephants on Parade.” Additionally, it’s not until two-thirds of the way in does the homage to classic western films really come through. Yet amidst these fumbles, great moments of heart and comedy shine. At times the visual storytelling is even on par with Wall-E. The characters are memorable and the last five minutes will have most in tears.
The real star of The Good Dinosaur may be Sharon Calahan, director of photography-lighting. A passionate landscape painter, she spent countless hours painting the very landscapes that inspired the film’s look. The result is Pixar’s most visually stunning film to date. The advances in volumetric clouds alone, which filter and scatter light like in real life while adding in water and dust effects, will certainly take your breath away.
Overall, this is Pixar’s youngest skewing film. It’s not as cerebral or thought-provoking as Inside Out, but adults who enjoyed Finding Nemo will be sufficiently entertained. To conclude, The Good Dinosaurs is a family film in every sense of the word. Executive produced by John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, and Andrew Stanton. With original concept and development by Bob Peterson, the film features a story by Peter Sohn, Erik Benson, Meg LaFauve, Kelsey Mann, and Peterson, and screenplay by LeFauve. Music is by Academy-Award-winning film composer Mychael Danna (“Life of Pi”) and Emmy-nominated composer Jeff Danna (“Tyrant”). Additional voice cast includes Frances McDormand (as Momma), Steve Zahn (as Thunderclap), Anna Paquin (as Ramsey), A.J. Buckley (as Nash), and Sam Elliot (as Butch). The film opens in theaters on November 25th, 2015.