“The Good Dinosaur is innocuous fun”
The Good Dinosaur, at least at the AMC where I saw it, opens with director Peter Sohn thanking us for supporting creativity and actually going to the theater to see his film, rather than sitting hunched over a computer seeding a torrent of it. He proceeds to tell us how, as a young boy in America with a mother who struggled with English, he would explain the story to her so that she’d understand. However, being that many moments in animated films are emphasized by music, facial expressions, and true human emotions, he says, some moments didn’t need any explanation at all. Sohn concludes by saying that The Good Dinosaur is a testament to animation’s universal language.
I may have been the only one in my respective screening with a pit in my stomach after hearing that, because right then and there, I feared The Good Dinosaur – a relatively low-key Pixar release and arguably destined to be about as forgettable in the minds of consumers as A Bug’s Life – would be an animated film that emphasized emotional claptraps and mawkish sentiments. Sure enough, my worst fears were realized. While its imagery is evocative and its landscapes immaculately detailed to a rare level of photorealism, The Good Dinosaur is a shamefully manipulative and disappointingly routine story by an acclaimed studio that should be spending its time a bit more wisely.
Unlike many people, I don’t feel that Pixar has fallen off so much as they’ve begun taking the easy way out, churning out sequels to films in order to assure a high opening weekend and even higher merchandising revenue, rather than consistently releasing subversive animated works like this year’s Inside Out (with the future holding Finding Dory, The Incredibles 2, and Toy Story 4, I hereby rest my case). This is a film that would’ve been perfectly acceptable as a direct-to-DVD Disney sequel to the long-running Land Before Time series; it’s not something that we should try and justify as a great, or even a really good, work from an animated studio that has redefined what an animated film can and who it can appeal to.
The film revolves around a family of Apparatuses, who serve as farmers of a large, fruitful area of land. They are Henry (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) and Ida (Frances McDormand), who give birth to three children in the opening scene: Libby (Maleah Padilla), Buck (Marcus Scribner), and Arlo (Raymond Ochoa). Arlo is different from both Libby and Buck in that he’s significantly smaller, not as mischievous, and struggles with arduous tasks that Libby and Buck can perform with ease. During a time when food scarcity is a very real problem, Henry encourages his children to “leave their mark” on the silo where they store food; such is a privilege is obtained when they do something selfless that benefits the family. Before Arlo knows it, when Libby and Buck earn the privilege to do so, he still can’t even muster the bravery to adequately feed the chickens in his coup.
After a task to trap a hungry critter, who turns out to be a feral young boy, that is robbing them of their food for the winter ends in calamity for the family, Arlo winds up straying far away from his home into uncharted and dangerous territory. In order to get back, he needs to muster the courage to find his way home, assisted by the likes of the same feral boy who was once stealing from his family.
The Good Dinosaur features some of the most bizarre characters this side of a Disney film, including a dazed, meditative rhino, a restless pair of dinosaur brothers and sisters, and some cowboy dinosaurs that act like loose canon outlaws. Anybody who thought the onslaught of Cars characters we had to endure were strange should see this film and compare notes. This wouldn’t be such a glaring perplexity if The Good Dinosaur wasn’t trying to be rather blunt with its humor like Cars 2 one moment, but then more sort-spoken and harmonious in flow and style like Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron the next.
With that, the general vibe of this film is almost unacceptably generic, as the same tired morals of family, being brave/masculine, and leaving one’s legacy on a community are constantly reiterated as if they are somehow refreshing ideas. Sure these are valid morals children of any age can use, but compare them to the ideas communicated in Inside Out. That film showed the complexities of being a young girl, thrust into a situation few could adequately handle emotionally at such a young age, and one that handled depression, conflicting emotions, and recurring sadness in a way that could be communicated to children of any age.
While The Good Dinosaur is innocuous fun, and features luscious animation (though sometimes the photorealism becomes too close to a Disneynature visual spectacle than an animated film) throughout, it shouldn’t be so easily and readily accepted by an audience spoiled with such greatness as Inside Out this same year. Even Monsters University, an often shortchanged project in terms of its themes, serves as better entertainment and more significance than this. The Good Dinosaur is like giving somebody who loves freshly basked pie with a secret ingredient off-brand, store bought/packaged pie and telling them, “just pretend for now, while we work on something else.”
NOTE: The short before this film, Sanjay’s Secret Team, an alleged true story revolving around a small Indian boy who takes up mediating after being forced to by his father, operates on much of the same plane as this feature film; it’s boldly stylistic and colorful, but offers depressingly little sustenance in the face of others before it. I surprisingly didn’t lava it.