Peter Sohn | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG
Once upon a time, Pixar could do no wrong. Then Cars happened; and worse, its sequel. Now, their movies remain an event, and some people still swear by everything they do, but I think there’s a greater awareness that they’re fallible. When it came out at the tail end of 2015, The Good Dinosaur was received as further evidence of that. Especially coming in the same year that gave us the universally praised (*coughoverratedcough*) Inside Out, it was instantaneously dubbed a “lesser Pixar”. But here is where completism has its merits, because I really enjoyed it.
Set in an alternate world where the dinosaurs were never wiped out and so have evolved to the point where they talk, farm, etc, the film tells the story of little Arlo, an Apatosaurus who’s regularly overshadowed by his siblings. When an accident leaves him stranded many miles from his family he must make the long trek home, finding his inner courage on the way ‘n’ that kind of thing.
There’s no denying that The Good Dinosaur contains an abundance of re-heated elements: there are multiple plot beats shared with The Land Before Time, not to mention the general “talking child dinosaurs” thing; a major inciting incident is taken from The Lion King; the episodic structure is reminiscent of The Jungle Book; animated dinosaurs on photo-real backgrounds recalls Dinosaur; and the moral message and main character arc are lifted from any number of children’s animations. While I did find this bothersome at first — especially as the worst offenders are concentrated in the saccharine first act — by the time the film had settled into its meandering middle I came to quite like it.
Pixar have on several occasions produced films with an innovative opening act that descends into derivative kids’ animation runaround territory. WALL-E and Up are the worst offenders for this; Inside Out does it too, though there’s more of a mix of the two throughout the film. For many critics and viewers, the quality of those openings seem to be enough to earn the films heaps of praise. The Good Dinosaur inverts the formula: the easy, overfamiliar material is at the start, while the more meditative, mature content comes later. Clearly this didn’t work for many viewers, so I guess the lesson for Pixar is to put the clever stuff up front if they want universal praise.
Instead, The Good Dinosaur was often dismissed as only being for very young children. Some bits do come over that way, but it has quite a harsh edge at times, and the scene where the heroes get high on rotten fermented fruit is freaky even for adults (or this adult, at any rate). It’s a bit of a tonal oddity in this respect, especially when you also factor in some of the leisurely, silent moments spent admiring nature that evoke a filmmaker like Terrence Malick. No, seriously. That’s helped by the animation being mind-blowingly good. Not so much the character animation (which is still strong — the character models are more detailed than you first suspect), but the scenery those characters are placed in… wow. If you didn’t know better I’m sure much of it could pass for photography. And the way they’ve achieved water, a notoriously hard thing to capture in CGI, is absolutely incredible.
Perhaps most powerful of all is the relationship it creates between Arlo and a young human child he befriends, Spot. With humanity in a much earlier state of evolution, Spot is basically characterised as a dog — the way he moves, comes to his name, follows scents, shakes, scratches and enjoys being scratched, and so on — so of course I warmed to him. Nonetheless, though the building blocks used to create their friendship are very familiar, the way the film sells its emotional arc is ultimately immensely effective. Its resolution may even bring a tear to the eye.
While it may take a while to warm up, The Good Dinosaur is ultimately a very affecting entry in Pixar’s canon. It’s by no means a perfect movie, but I do think it’s an underrated one. And, in all honesty, I enjoyed it more than Inside Out.