Had The Good Dinosaur been released 18 months ago, in the spring of 2014 like it was originally supposed to be, it likely would have been received with more fanfare than it will be for this Thanksgiving date. Because The Good Dinosaur was pushed back, this is the first year that’s seen the release of two Pixar films, and Inside Out is a hard act to follow. Now most of the commentary around The Good Dinosaur will likely be “it wasn’t as good as Inside Out“, and it’s not. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s even as good as the film it was meant to follow, Monsters University, which is already considered by most to be lesser Pixar.
The concept for the film has been known for years and is set up in all of the trailers: what if the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs missed earth? If you’re dealing with a reality where dinosaurs never went extinct, one would think the instinct would be to set it in modern day. How would our lives be different if dinosaurs still existed? Instead the film is set a few million years after the asteroid passed earth by. Dinosaurs have learned to farm and speak, whereas humans are still wild and little more than pests. Arlo, our protagonist, is a young, clumsy Apatosaurus eager to prove himself to his family, who don’t seem to have much patience for his inability to help around the farm. In true Disney style, Arlo tragically loses his father in a flash flood while trying to track down the pesky human child that’s been eating their crops. Arlo then has a second accident in the same river, causing him to get swept away and lost in a vast, beautiful wilderness. While he tries to make his way home, he develops a boy and dog relationship with the human as they navigate the dangers of an eat or be eaten world.
It all feels like very well tread ground, something Pixar is usually great at avoiding. It’s lacking their distinct stamp that makes you think “only Pixar” as you watch it. Really any animation studio could have made this film (which is how I also felt about Brave). There’s nothing about this story that feels new or innovative. Once Arlo begins his journey, he’s put through a series of trials that all feel very familiar and similar. Everyone he encounters either helps him or tries to eat him, and if it’s not some other animal threatening him, it’s a natural element. That darn river is a continuous source of antagonism. It all begins to feel very repetitive and amounts to very little, just a bunch of unfortunate events to fill 90 minutes, without much in the way of a climax. I guess the moral of the story is to be brave and confront your fears… and stick to your own kind, but that’s a tough one to get into without going into spoiler territory.
What was clear from the first images of The Good Dinosaur was that animators have done a great job with the environment. It’s a great looking film with incredibly photorealistic landscapes, so it mostly succeeds on a visual level. The design of the main characters however feels a little lacking and seem almost like placeholders for more detailed renditions that never came. I much prefer the look of many of the supporting characters who Arlo meets along the way but never stick around for very long. A standout scene used in much of the marketing is one where Arlo encounters triceratops adorned with a variety of pets, sadly this is the only scene he appears in.
The Good Dinosaur serves as a good reminder that these films are really just for kids. Many of the things adults will criticize it for are exactly what will endear it to children. Repetitiveness is their bread and butter, and they seem to like dinosaurs too. This could become another steady stream of income for Pixar the same way the much derided Cars has been. It puts into perspective just how much hope and anticipation some adults (such as myself) have come to put into this brand of children’s entertainment, so much so that sometimes we forget who the real target demographic is. But with such a troubled production history that included replacing the director and most of the voice cast partway through, one can’t help but wonder how much Bob Peterson’s (the first director, now only credited with the concept) original vision differed from this final version and if it would have been something a little more original.
Watch our interview with director Peter Sohn, where he speaks about taking over the production, the decision to put graphic characters into photorealistic settings, and of course, what’s on his Dork Shelf.