The Visuals Outshine the Narrative but the Kids Will Love it Anyway
Let’s get the obvious out of the way right from the get-go: With a track record as impeccable as Pixar’s it’s almost impossible not to hold them to a higher standard over the competition in the CG animated feature film game. After all, they did invent it.
That said, it’s becoming increasing difficult to put a thumb on what or who Pixar is these days. Since their absorption into Disney, the uniqueness that was once theirs and theirs alone is steadily fading. This isn’t to say they’re no longer the absolute upper echelon of the industry of course, rather the reality is slowly sinking in that walking out of the theater of their films in absolute bewilderment as to how they keep coming up with these things is coming to an end.
The Good Dinosaur has also the misfortune of being released after Inside Out; a film which to many has shown the type of creativity and simplistic brilliance that put the company on the map in the first place. Comparatively, The Good Dinosaur isn’t nearly as progressive. However, had it found itself positioned between fairly lackluster sequels Monsters University and Finding Dory, perhaps critical reception would have been a bit more forgiving.
The film has a bit of a turbulent history behind it as well. Apparently it was born, as most Pixar projects are, upon a simple/ clever foundation. Dating as far back as 2009, Up’s Bob Peterson hatched the concept that what if that asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs and forever changed life on earth as we know it had missed?
It’s rumored that by the end of summer 2013 Peterson was removed from the project, co-director Peter Sohn moved into the driver’s seat, the story re-imagined, a new cast brought in and a whole new projection for release calculated (in other words, pushed back).
The end result is what we now know as The Good Dinosaur, Pixar’s 16th animated feature film, released November 2015. Interestingly, it also represents the first time Pixar has ever released two films in the same year (the other of course being Inside Out).
The budget on this one is estimated at about $200-million and it took in $331.9-mil at the box office. A monster profit for sure but a drop in the bucket when compared to the type of returns both Disney and Pixar have come to expect in their seemingly inescapable-hype marketing campaigned projects. In fact, it bears the distinction of being Pixar’s lowest grossing film to date.
The story tells of Arlo, the youngest of a trio of apatosaurus hatchlings born (hatched) into life on the farm. Cowardly, awkward and gangly, Arlo struggles to find his place within the family farm as well as within the world at large.
Due to a series of events, he finds himself far removed from the corner of the world his family calls home and ends up inadvertently befriending an orphaned human child named Spot along the way.
In a sort of role reversal from convention, the world Good Dinosaur gives us plays with the concept that not having gone extinct millions of years prior, dinos could have evolved into the dominant species on the planet; even during the rise of primitive man. As a result, they talk, work jobs, play pranks on one another and have to plan for the winter without access to food (an especially pertinent concern for the herbivorous apatasaurs). Though certainly food for thought, in execution the society is as much Flintstones as it is inverse Jurrasic Park.
The core of the film builds upon the bond possible between man and beast- or in this case, beast and man. In a lot of ways it’s no different from what we witnessed in the vastly superior How to Train Your Dragon franchise from DreamWorks just told from the opposite perspective.
About my biggest complaint with the piece is the depth- as in the complete lack there of. The above summary IS the story! Arlo gets separated from his family and begins the arduous journey back home and discovers himself along the way. Sure themes of believing in one’s self, physical size not being as important as heart, looks of enemies being deceiving etc. all make their presence felt along the way, the reality is this is hardly novel storytelling for any medium.
The most heartfelt and natural moments of the film are the ones that work off the bond Arlo and Spot form (in an ironic twist where mankind is the animal to the civilized dinosaurs). In fact one particular scene where the main character and Spot explain the concept of family and what happened to each of theirs respectively without the ability to speak to one another harkens back to some of Pixars more brilliant and touching sensibilities.
In the end, however, the lack of cleverness and straight forward nature of the plot are absolutely overshadowed by the possibilities of “what if”. Imagine what kind of a story you might tell if given the premise the dinosaurs were never rendered extinct, human beings are annoying little vermin in their world and you have Disney’s endless budget to make insure whatever you dream up can happen onscreen. Would you tell the basic story that an insecure farm boy gets separated from his home and learns about friendship through a bond with a savage human boy? Would that rival the type of cleverness that are the Toy Stories, the sense of irony that is Wall-E or the quiet dignity that defined a human lifespan found in Up?
Worse still is this is the revised version of the story, keep in mind. If all of the delays were to improve upon the material, one really has to wonder what they had going on before.
The greatest achievement the film can boast however comes in its visuals. They aren’t just good, they are downright spectacular. In high definition it is literally difficult to tell whether or not the backdrops and settings are photo-realistic (the character models, however, not so much). While this film may not be convincing evidence Pixar has continued to push the envelope story-wise consistently, it is indisputable proof that they never lost their stronghold concerning visuals. Like always, they set the bar and now the rest of the industry will have to play catch-up.
In conclusion, make no mistake, The Good Dinosaur is an enjoyable 93-minutes, filled with memorable characters, big action sequences and visuals that absolutely dazzle. Kids will undoubtedly find the lack of complexity in plot and relatively small cast of characters easy to ingest. Where things get a little ugly is when you stop to remember that this is the product of the highest echelon the genre has to offer and then stop to ponder the legacy on which it was built.