THE GOOD DINOSAUR (Movie Review)

The-Good-Dinosaur-Official-Trailer-2-11
**1/2 out of ****
Rated PG
for peril, action, and thematic elements
Released: November 25, 2015
Runtime: 100 minutes
 (including the Pixar Short “Sanjay’s Super Team”)
Starring (the voices of):  Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Raymond Ochoa, Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, Steve Zahn

(read my interview with the director and cast here)

Barely living up to its title, The Good Dinosaur is a disappointing and surprisingly conventional effort from Pixar Animation Studios.

Twenty years ago, Pixar set the Gold Standard for feature animation in the modern era with the original Toy Story. They’ve continued to do that with original ideas, sharp humor, surprising sophistication, and tear-jerking emotion, all while actually taking chances on hard-sell high concepts (such as this past summer’s superior Inside Out).

Yet while The Good Dinosaur boasts some of the best visuals ever seen in animation (Pixar or otherwise), this generic and, at times, embarrassingly derivative effort (cribbing tropes from major Disney films and Western classics) falls below the high bar that the studio has long set for itself. Sure, it should easily entertain kids and possibly provide a passable charm for adults, but its inability to capture our imaginations or our hearts will likely make The Good Dinosaur one of Pixar’s least beloved efforts.

The film starts with an intriguing hook…and then completely wastes it. Its alternate timeline is based on this premise: “What if the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs never actually hit the earth?” How it answers that question, unfortunately, isn’t anything out of the ordinary of what you’d expect from an animated movie about dinosaurs.

It’s centuries past the dinosaur expiration date, and their intelligence has evolved to early levels of human community and technology (farming, ranching, etc.). But anthropomorphizing animals is nothing new; in fact, it’s what animated movies do. That’s their thing.

The alternate earth timeline does afford dinosaurs and humans to be on the planet at the same time (though again, far from a novel concept), but even that is only explored at a basic level – as opposed to, say, imagining what the world would be like today if dinosaurs had never left. That could open a whole slew of creative possibilities. Instead, we have a prehistoric boy with talking dinos. Not awful, but not terribly inspired either.

This wouldn’t even be much of a gripe, of course, if the actual story being told resonated in any particular way. Instead, the first act gives us a very standard father/son story, in which Arlo – the smallest, weakest dino child of three – struggles to make his mark on the family farm, so he sets out into the wilderness to see if he can prove himself there. Along the way, Arlo befriends a lost – and un-evolved – human boy who acts like a dog, barking and panting while running around on all fours. This offers a cute twist on the “boy and his dog” dynamic, (Arlo even names him “Spot”), but that too only sticks to well-worn conventions.

Their journey meanders through an episodic hodgepodge of moments and concepts. Some work better than others (like The Pet Collector, a hilariously bizarre character – voiced by director Pete Sohn – that could’ve served the movie better beyond one scene), but even when they do, the entertainment value is fleeting.

The growing bond between Arlo and Spot is supposed to be the connective tissue (both narratively and emotionally) through all the randomness, but with characters so thinly drawn it never comes together. Falling back on doe-eyed adorableness or cuddly snuggles to elicit cheap “awwww”s from the audience only goes so far.

A family of T-Rex ranchers is the film’s most effective detour, especially as its patriarch Butch provides the perfect opportunity for Sam Elliott – icon of modern day Westerns and cult favorites like The Big Lebowski – to finally add his voice to the Pixar canon. Elliott’s deep and instantly identifiable drawl is like comfort food, and it strikes the perfect tone for Butch who serves as a “surrogate father” catalyst when Arlo needs it most. Seeing the three T-Rexes herd bison is also a well-conceived treat. But again – while fun, it’s also fleeting.

Some of Arlo’s encounters are truly bizarre, whether it be a scary trio of pterodactyls, another trio of dino scavengers (a redux of The Lion King hyenas – which isn’t the only time this rips off of that Disney favorite), or a G-rated LSD trip by way of fermented wild berries. The comedy, too, is desperate. Pixar’s sharp wit is largely absent here, instead resorting mostly to “pee” jokes and the like. Attempts at emotional heart-tugging are also cheap, and the film’s lessons are spelled out in contrived axioms time and again. The Good Dinosaur simply tries too hard in ways too obvious to be crazy, funny, moving, and wise.

While the characters and narrative struggle, the film’s landscapes are breathtaking. From specific detail to epic scope, The Good Dinosaur is as cinematic an animated movie as Hollywood has produced. The photo-real quality often blurs the line between “animation” and “visual effects”, though, a sensibility that’s impressive on its face but diminishes the stylized palette we enjoy from the genre.

Look, if Jurassic World proved anything, it’s that there’s an endless appetite for dinosaur movies. That must be why, when the decision was made to scrap the work on this film halfway through, Pixar chose to forge ahead with a reboot rather than kill the project entirely (as they’ve done with other failed developments). The end result of this makeover is a movie that relies on the easiest, safest ideas every step of the way. Clever nuggets still emerge throughout (this is Pixar, after all), but they’re light seasoning on a bland entrée.

For all I know, this might be good enough to score big box office and maybe even a sequel or two. I mean, Cars 3 is on the way so anything’s possible, right? Still, even if The Good Dinosaur proves to be merchandizing gold, it will never hold our affections like Pixar’s best always has and, no doubt, will again.

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