It would seem like we’re getting quite an outstanding deal in 2015, as this is the first time that we’ve gotten two Pixar movies in the same year! This is to compensate for 2014 not having a Pixar offering at all, due to the long delay of The Good Dinosaur, which was originally meant to premiere in theatres last year. Somewhere along the line though, production hit a serious snag, to the point where Disney and Pixar ordered a complete revision of the cast, scrapping all of the former voice work and performers (with Frances McDormand as the only exception), while also heavily re-tooling the story.
These production troubles would give cause to be nervous about The Good Dinosaur out of the gate, especially after Pixar’s previous movie from this past Summer, Inside Out, proved to be a return to form for the studio, and arguably one of 2015’s overall best movies. Inside Out is naturally a very tough act to follow, though The Good Dinosaur does an admirable job of rising to the occasion, especially as it provides an ideal kid-friendly family blockbuster for the Holiday season. Delivering an emotional and fun storyline, The Good Dinosaur carries enough Pixar-approved charm and heart to make it a worthwhile jaunt to the big screen, for those of all ages who enjoy animated movies.
With that said however, it’s also difficult to deny the evidence that Pixar just wanted to finish the movie as best as they could, which leads to The Good Dinosaur treading a good chunk of familiar ground for both Disney and Pixar. It’s good without being exemplary, and satisfying without being groundbreaking. The fundamental parts make for a good movie nonetheless, though it’s doubtful that The Good Dinosaur will be especially fondly remembered by most viewers, since getting it to theatres did mean filling in the holes with a lot of recycled material.
Our titular ‘Good Dinosaur’ is Arlo, the youngest child in an Apatosaurus family, which also consists of wise father, Poppa, gentle mother, Momma, rambunctious brother, Buck, and resourceful sister, Libby. The family of dinosaurs work as farmers of sorts, growing and harvesting corn, which they must stockpile for Winter. While the rest of the family seems to have no trouble making their mark, quite literally, as Poppa allows them to mark the family’s stockpile when they’ve learned to do good work, Arlo is having a little bit of trouble.
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: Arlo has a problem with being anxious and scared, yet is determined to overcome his fears. When tragedy strikes and he becomes separated from his family, Arlo has no choice but to learn to overcome his fear and self-doubt, when he’s forced to survive in the wild, meeting a host of interesting and eccentric characters, while also accompanied with an initially difficult sidekick that he will soon come to adore. Yep, it’s pretty much an age-old recipe for several movies under the Disney banner, and evidence of The Good Dinosaur’s heavy revisions are all over the place, given how much the movie cobbles events and scenarios from other Disney movies to piece itself together.
Like I said though, just because Arlo’s journey is one that other classic Disney characters have taken before, and sometimes taken with better results, that doesn’t make the journey bad or pointless. We know the steps that Arlo will take before he takes them, but the character is still likable, and the personalities that he encounters are still fun in their own right. Even being a stereotypical coward-turned-hero protagonist, The Good Dinosaur still manages to derive some good jokes and heartfelt moments from Arlo’s character, especially when he plays well off of his companion, Spot, a feral human boy that more or less functions like the faithful dog that some of these similar movie protagonists would take on their journeys of self-discovery.
Spot is completely mute, and communicates entirely with growls, grunts and other such noises, mostly letting his actions do the talking for him. Arlo even names Spot himself, after humourously trying a series of names along with a rather spaced-out triceratops, a scene extensively advertised in the trailers, since it’s quickly evident that Spot has no family unit. Luckily, like Arlo, Spot is plenty likable, and has enough charm to get around the fact that this is a character that’s been portrayed before, right down to some of the ironic animated movies that have portrayed humans as animals, or something of the sort, even temporarily.
The bond that grows between Arlo and Spot is one that moviegoers will be familiar with, but it’s one that’s still portrayed well, and can be surprisingly emotional in some of the movie’s better scenes. If nothing else, Pixar are still masters at showing and not telling, having most of the biggest impactful moments between Arlo and Spot take place with few or no words shared at all, especially since Spot never speaks throughout the movie anyway, and yet, he never has to. As familiar as The Good Dinosaur is, there are still plenty of scenes between these two that will both have you laughing out loud, and moved to tears, among other things.
As for an antagonist, there isn’t really a central foe in The Good Dinosaur. Nature itself is mostly the movie’s villain, even if there is a half-hearted attempt to create a climactic battle with the aid of some unpleasant pterodactyls towards the end. Because of this structure, that means that characters often come and go in The Good Dinosaur, with Arlo and Spot completely driving the movie forward. This is fine to a point, since it means that the movie can focus squarely on its leads, and not bite off more than it can chew. On the flip side however, even the goofier characters that Arlo meets don’t stay that memorable for long. The movie makes a great effort to try and make its dinosaur personalities distinct, from the aforementioned weirdo triceratops and nasty pterodactyls, to some herder-style tyrannosaurus rexes, and of course, Arlo’s family, but disappointingly, they might as well be part of the scenery, as Arlo and Spot feel like the only characters who truly matter as anything more than plot devices.
The Good Dinosaur is wise to focus on simplicity though, since it knows that it can’t afford to be overly complicated, and have many different personalities constantly fighting for attention. It focuses on what it needs to focus on, never really forging new ground for even its leads, but still managing to entertain you with all of its personalities, at least while they last.
I’ve more or less already summed up what The Good Dinosaur is about, since it’s a largely straightforward big screen escapade. The movie is entirely about Arlo’s journey through the wild on his own, to become stronger, and not be afraid of everything anymore. It’s an age-old tale of how a coward finds his courage, and at least The Good Dinosaur makes its re-treading of classic ideas appealing to watch and enjoy, even if you’ll forget about a chunk of it as soon as you exit the theatre.
It’s not often that this occurs with Pixar movies, even troublesome low points like 2011’s Cars 2, but The Good Dinosaur is unfortunately a movie finished out of necessity, rather than full and complete inspiration, despite Pixar’s genuine efforts with it. It might be easy to be cynical about that, but even if there’s very little to ultimately say about the story, at least Pixar’s usual panache for animated storytelling manages to elevate this well-trodden adventure path into something better than average, however slightly.
Originally, The Good Dinosaur was meant to be a collaboration between Bob Peterson and Peter Sohn, with Peterson first pitching the idea and getting it approved by Pixar. After Peterson had trouble with the movie’s third act though, he ultimately left the project, in favour of writing duties on next year’s Pixar offering, Finding Dory. This left Peter Sohn as the sole director in the end, and one of the main driving forces behind the movie’s re-tooling into what its final product ultimately is.
Sohn is normally a storyboard artist, and is perhaps best recognized as the inspiration behind Russell, the sidekick from 2009’s Pixar movie, Up. Predictably, The Good Dinosaur borrows a couple of story elements from Up, among a few other Pixar tales, but it’s very commendable that Sohn, who has no directing experience beyond animated short, Partly Cloudy, which screened before Up when it was in theatres, delivered such a poignant and well-realized movie, out of so many recycled parts. The direction is one of the best parts of The Good Dinosaur, as the movie is both emotional and gorgeously realized, doing Pixar proud, even with its production issues and less remarkable product than most of Pixar’s offerings.
Even when everything feels so familiar, the great direction in The Good Dinosaur ensures that things remain interesting and engaging, even when they’re predictable. This is a movie that effectively reminds you that these kinds of movies are ultimately about the journey, not the destination, which will help to distract audiences from knowing exactly how everything ends in advance. There are at least a couple of scenes that have some good surprises, but for the most part, Sohn seems to focus more on taking a simple foundation, and trying to make it as good as he can. This proves to be the right call though, as The Good Dinosaur’s rickety foundation would have immediately had the movie coming apart, had it arrogantly tried to defy the fact that it’s working with half a concept.
MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK
The Good Dinosaur’s score is composed by Mychael and Jeff Danna, sibling composers that mark the first time that Pixar has hired two composers for a single movie. Their score is mostly good, capturing the powerful emotion behind many of the movie’s highlight scenes, though the score clearly feels slanted, since the action scenes aren’t given an appropriately powerful music backdrop. It’s probably just a matter of priorities, since The Good Dinosaur is always firmly about Arlo’s journey and development more than anything else, but the action doesn’t always register as much, since the score captures drama very well, though not so much a sense of danger most of the time.
As for the rest of the soundtrack and audio in the movie, it’s mostly rendered well. The sound effects are certainly more intense than the music in some of the more dangerous scenes, where the fury of nature is at least effectively conveyed that way. Some children may even be a bit frightened by some of the more intense scenes if they’re easily scared, though this helps to make nature feel appropriately dangerous in The Good Dinosaur at least, in the absence of a physical, tangible antagonist.
Another big plus in The Good Dinosaur, despite some of its narrative shortcomings, is the animation, which, as usual for Pixar, is the best in the business. This could be the one thing that The Good Dinosaur does even better than Inside Out. Inside Out was a very well-animated movie, but it also had a focus on being more grounded and colourful. The Good Dinosaur meanwhile is far more large-scale and ambitious, unfolding in a sprawling, captivating world that effortlessly leaps to life off of the big screen, with personalities that also come to life in a similar way. All of The Good Dinosaur is breathtakingly animated, particularly in terms of cutting-edge new weather and landscape effects that no animated movie has ever rendered to this degree of sharp realism. Even if the story offers few surprises, the excellent visuals will seize your attention and keep it for the entirety of the runtime!
The movie is a visual marvel in both 3D and 2D, though as is usual for Pixar, the 3D cut is nothing all that special. The main instances where the 3D is used is during scenes that incorporate effects like rain, dust and other such particle effects. It slightly increases the immersion, and any 3D effects are definitely not intrusive or distracting, though none of it heavily enhances the movie. You don’t really lose anything by just saving the few dollars and watching the movie flat in 2D, if that’s your preference, where its outstanding animation is still just as breathtaking.
Even with the other difficulties involved in making The Good Dinosaur, Pixar’s magic is still at its best in the visuals, if nothing else. Kids and adults alike will be floored by just how gorgeous the world of the movie truly is, and it also helps to make Arlo’s journey feel alive and vivid. Even taking place in an alternate format of history where the dinosaurs never went extinct, and evolved as a dominant species in place of humans, The Good Dinosaur feels incredibly true-to-life, and like it’s a journey that audiences can easily take with its main hero, which at least visually sets itself apart from so many similar journeys that came before.
The Good Dinosaur fought a very uphill battle to get to the big screen, and it also comes in a standout year for Disney, who made money hand over fist with offerings like Cinderella, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Inside Out and Ant-Man this year, and that’s before the guaranteed payday that will come with Star Wars: The Force Awakens later this month. In contrast to those juggernaut movies, The Good Dinosaur feels more like a little engine that could than a truly impressive blockbuster vehicle, but it’s still a commendable adventure in its own right, if not a novel one.
The hallmarks of Pixar help to salvage a project that most other studios frankly would have abandoned, and that means that The Good Dinosaur packs in that reliable Pixar heart and beauty, despite some of the story and character flaws. Even with its difficulties, the movie is very well-polished, and you can tell that Pixar didn’t want to half-ass the movie, and put their best foot forward with what they had to work with, even if it’s still noticeable that the studio had to borrow ideas from other movies in the Disney catalogue to fully complete the piece.
In terms of how it stacks up with other Holiday family releases, The Good Dinosaur still stands a bit taller than most of them, even with its shortcomings, with Fox Animation’s The Peanuts Movie possibly being the only serious rival to it, especially for young kids. The Good Dinosaur is probably more engaging than The Peanuts Movie, even if The Peanuts Movie ultimately feels better-realized, though I imagine that either option is better than Alvin & The Chipmunks: The Road Chip, set to arrive later this month alongside Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
If you love Pixar, or animated movies in general, you will still like The Good Dinosaur, though it inevitably falls beneath the outstanding quality of Inside Out. Even if it’s not the best Pixar movie though, it’s competent, heartfelt, and will even bring a tear to your eye at times. It’s beneath the Pixar standard, but when Pixar is so often associated with a legion of instant classics, one could still fairly say that The Good Dinosaur is a cut above most other animated flicks, especially since it still has a big heart of its own, even when its body is built from the recycled parts of success stories that came before it.
The Good Dinosaur's difficult production journey inevitably compromises it, especially when stacked against Inside Out, but the movie is still a gorgeous and emotional adventure that packs in plenty of charm, if also a lot of familiarity.
MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK
THE GOOD STUFF
Arlo and Spot are likable, fun leads
Sharp, surprisingly emotional direction
Gorgeous, cutting-edge animation
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
Most personalities, while fun, are not memorable
Story is extensively recycled from other Disney movies