Has Pixar given Jurassic World a run for its money? Oscar goes prehistoric to find out.
The Good Dinosaur is the second film from Pixar to come out this year. It was meant to come out last year, but due to troubles over at the studio and the creative team trying to craft a worthwhile movie, it was pushed back to 2015. Having finally seen it, I am willing to contend that The Good Dinosaur is a good film, but not a great one. Perhaps I have been a little spoiled after the rousing success of Inside Out, but I must confess that the story itself, while solid, is very simplistic and shares more with older Disney fare than the usual Pixar crop. But does that ruin the film? Let’s take a look.
We start with a flashback showing the infamous asteroid narrowly avoiding impact with prehistoric Earth and sparing the dinosaurs from extinction. Millions of years later, two Apatosaurus farmers named Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Ida (Frances McDormand), give birth to three children: Libby, Buck, and the runt Arlo (Raymond Ochoa). While Libby and Buck easily adjust to life and their responsibilities on their farm, Arlo’s timid nature makes his tasks difficult for him. In order to give Arlo a sense of purpose, Henry puts him in charge of guarding their corn silo for pests and helping him setup traps. One day, a feral caveboy (Jack Bright) is captured, but Arlo is too reluctant to kill him and it runs free. Disappointed, Henry and a reluctant Arlo track the caveboy through a ravine where it begins to rain. After Arlo injures himself, Henry decides to turn back just as a flash flood occurs. Henry only manages to save Arlo before he is swept away and killed.
The family struggle to get by without Henry, and Arlo spots the caveboy in the silo again and chases him in a fit of rage, only to fall into the nearby river and get swept away by the rapids. He wakes up to realise he is far from home, and struggles to survive on his own. But he is not alone. The caveboy (whom he later names Spot) is alive as well and manages to befriend an untrusting Arlo with offerings of berries, and even protects him from a snake. Feeling he can trust the boy, Arlo and Spot stick together and make a long, perilous journey to get back to Spot’s farmstead on the other side of three mountains. Along the way, they encounter ruthless scavenging Pterosaurs led by Thunderclap (Steve Zahn), vicious Velociraptor rustlers, and a family of Tyrannosaurus ranchers composing of Butch (Sam Elliott), Nash (A.J. Buckley) and Ramsey (Anna Paquin). But all the while, the dangerous terrain and unforgiving weather of the land prove to be the greatest obstacle the youngsters must overcome.
The voice acting is as good as you would expect from Disney; Ochoa invests a lot of emotion and range as Arlo, and Bright’s doglike mannerisms and growls are surprisingly endearing, giving Spot a lot of personality. Despite their limited screentime, both Wright and McDormand are dependable as the strong, compassionate parents, whilst Marcus Scribner and Maleah Padilla are just okay as Arlo’s siblings. Zahn has a fairly sinister turn as Thunderclap, if fairly limited in appearance. Dave Boat and Carrie Paff are the main Raptors, and put on a strong southern redneck accent, which I will touch on later. Director Peter Sohn even appears as this nomadic, Pet Collector Styracosaurus who almost tries to claim Spot as his new pet, and he comes off as intermittently funny and just plain bizarre. But the real standouts are the T-Rex family, as Paquin and Buckley are both fun and personable as the youngsters, but the casting of Elliott as a grizzled T-Rex hombre was a stroke of genius.
What I didn’t expect was that The Good Dinosaur is essentially a dinosaur Western and contains a lot of elements we associate with the genre. We have settlers trying to eke out a living in the wilderness with the Apatosaur family, we have T-Rex cattle ranchers who canter across the plains with their arms bobbing up and down like cowboys riding upon horses, and you have Pterosaurs and Raptors preying on the weak or stealing livestock just like bandits and rustlers, meaning that the Raptors’ thick Southern accents are not accidental. Spot even howls just like a wolf, so you could imagine this as a real-life Western with a human boy adopting a wolf cub. All of these familiar elements work really well within the film’s context. The score by Mychael and Jeff Danna also channels a lovely Western flavour as well, with plenty of brass, fiddle and guitar strings, an atmospheric use of wind instruments, and plenty of soaring, uplifting moments as well.
In a very straightforward film with relatively limited dialogue, the animation carries a lot of the story, and Spot in particular manages to convey exactly what he’s thinking through his the eyes, expressions and comedic timing. Even Arlo manages this as well during the quieter scenes. The detail and realism of the weather, water, vast landscapes, and forest creatures stand as a testament to how far Pixar Animation has come since Toy Story in 1996. This also helps the intensity of the various natural calamities that unfold in how detailed and realistic they are. As for the dinosaurs themselves, most of them are very cartoonishly-designed, almost like illustrations out of a children’s book. While I mostly didn’t mind this choice as it made them look more vulnerable, I do feel like a slight touch of realism would have helped the two feel more connected.
Despite playing the story very safe for the most part, the tone still enters a few dark corners of the natural world. After Arlo survives that rapid river, his body is actually covered in bloody cuts and his knees are red and swollen. When the Tyrannosaurs talk about their scars, they get as gorily detailed as possible. And there are multiple on-screen deaths; a couple played for laughs, but others played quite seriously. The message is that while fear is a natural part of life and you can’t live without it, you can overcome it by having a cause bigger than yourself to motivate you. We see Arlo’s arc reflect this and how he learns to think on his feet when in peril, and in contrast, we have the fanatical Pterosaurs who claim to be devoid of fear but are all too often blind to danger.
There are, however, a lot of familiar story beats that invite similarities to such films as The Land Before Time, Homeward Bound, Ice Age, even older Disney films such as Bambi and Dumbo. Indeed, the film really feels like it’s hewn from that same cloth of a simplistic story, arguably done better by other films. This is understandable considering the mature writing shown in Pixar’s greater examples. There are a few scenes of good humour, but once again, not up to the usual high standard of Pixar. We see only a handful of prehistoric species in total; the Apatosaurs, the Styracosaurus, the Pterosaurs, the T-Rexes, and the Raptors, and despite tantalising hints towards a more interesting world, the setting of the story feels rather empty. Oftentimes, something interesting is introduced but then the film breezes right past it. Mostly, the emotion is there but it doesn’t come across as strongly as it should. One or two key emotional gut-punches aren’t quite as powerful as they needed to be because of the decidedly quickened pace early on. Fortunately, it does come together in the third act and the emotional strengths we associate with Pixar do return. Ultimately, the story itself is very simple and the characters, whilst enjoyable, are not strikingly original.
Compared to its more well-known and critically-acclaimed cousins, The Good Dinosaur comes across as rather more child-oriented than the likes of Toy Story or The Incredibles, and thus that sense of complexity feels missing at times. It’s certainly more well-rounded as a film and more visually-interesting than the Cars franchise or Brave, but I think Inside Out was the true return to form for the team. In the end, I would say Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur is certainly a good movie and worth seeing if you are a fan of the studio or have a strong fondness for dinosaurs, but looking past the animation, I would say its not among Pixar’s best.