When an animated movie stars a dinosaur that speaks English, it’s probably safe to say that it’s a work of fiction. So when does a work of fiction become just too implausible to be appreciated? The answer to that can probably be found in Pixar Animation Studios’ latest offering, The Good Dinosaur.
Now, wait, you may say… Pixar’s always pushed the envelope when it comes to depicting fiction. When Inside Out premiered earlier this year, a list that summarises all the Pixar movies in one line went viral. We’ve probably all seen it – it’s the one that ends with “What if feelings had feelings”. Over the years, bringing to life the implausible premise is a hurdle that Pixar has consistently cleared… till now.
The Good Dinosaur wonders how life may have been different if the asteroid didn’t collide with the Earth, 65 million years, and triggered the end of the Cretaceous period. As a result, for millions of years, dinosaurs have begun to evolve alongside mammals both large and small. Eventually, dinosaurs settle down, with some becoming farmers. Into one particular farming family, our hero Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) is born. As the runt of the litter, Arlo feels inadequate compared to his much more capable family. A life-changing incident sends Arlo out of his comfort zone into the world and as he tries to make his way home, his feelings of fear and inadequacy are put to the test again and again.
Sadly, The Good Dinosaur largely fails to live up to the storytelling standards expected of a Pixar film. The plot feels shallow, many scenes feel like filler thrown in as an afterthought, and some characters that you thought would get more screentime show up and never return. Much of the plot doesn’t follow any semblance of continuity. Like a Frankenstein’s Monster of a movie, dramatic scenes are followed clumsily by one-off comedy gags that eventually segue into what might as well be an action-adventure video game. All without much character growth.
In addition, some extremely strange creative decisions were made, like trying to convince audiences to see Arlo, the protagonist, as the “boy” behind the dinosaur. Many attempts to engender some kind of peril backfired. For example, when Arlo gets hungry, he desperately tries to obtain some berries, while conveniently forgetting that, as a large herbivore, he can eat just about anything in the foliage that surrounds him. Another poorly conceived creative decision was having the trio of T-Rexs run differently than would have in real life. In order to further emphasise that these T-Rexs were ranchers, the director had their lower bodies move like a horse’s galloping hind legs while their upper bodies imitated the posture of a cowboy holding the reins. Scenes like these only served to distract quite severely – it was taking the film’s implausibility way beyond what I could accept.
That being said, the problems with The Good Dinosaur are honestly not surprising. It’s a film that has endured a lot of intense scrutiny and change. Initially intended for a late 2013 release, the date ended up being moved twice, first to mid-2014 then to November 2015 (originally scheduled to be the release date of the much-awaited Finding Dory sequel) with the studio admitting that “the story was just not working”. Over the course of its development, both the film’s director and producer, along with all but one member of the originally announced voice cast departed from the film. The results speak for themselves. It’s not a comfortable feeling when you can imagine the numerous rewrites the movie went through over the years. What actually makes it to screen constantly feels uninspired and lacking in depth. Ending the film after 100 minutes almost feels like a mercy killing.
Negativity about the plot’s direction aside, The Good Dinosaur is a delectable visual treat. One cannot overstate how realistic and stunningly beautiful the setting is. Lots of research went into studying the geology, the flora and fauna found in the American Northwest, in states like Wyoming, Oregon and Montana. These vast and varied landscapes were then recreated to perfection in the movie, and director Peter Sohn takes every opportunity he has to showcase it. It is just mind-blowing how much detail went into each blade of grass, falling leaf and ray of light. This is animation at its finest. Though the movie as a whole may not be worth watching in 3D, only a widescreen cinema could do such amazing scenes justice.
The voice cast is also a wonderful revelation. While Pixar isn’t above some star-studded casting, including Anna Paquin (who plays T-Rex Ramsey) and Sam Elliot (who plays Ramsey’s scene-stealing father, Butch), it is the lesser known industry veterans who get a chance to shine, like Frances McDormand and Jeffrey Wright (who play hero Arlo’s parents Momma Ida and Poppa Henry, respectively). Steve Zahn also puts in a truly energetic performance as Thunderclap, the lead Pterodactyl.
Ultimately, the reason The Good Dinosaur feels like a disappointment is because we’ve come to expect a lot from a Pixar movie, especially one that is not a sequel or a prequel. That this movie came out in the same year as Inside Out just makes its flaws stand out all the more. To compare the two may feel unfair, but there’s very little about The Good Dinosaur that feels fresh, especially following the extremely original premise that was Inside Out. In fact, more than once, I felt The Good Dinosaur was a desperate rip-off of The Lion King. I won’t say how, of course – that would spoil the film.
That The Good Dinosaur managed to find its way off the drawing board at all could be saying a lot about the loyalty and commitment of Pixar Animation Studios to its creations and their creators. More than likely, however, it seems to signal a certain creative bankruptcy in Pixar – any film that doesn’t have John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Pete Docter or Andrew Stanton attached to it just isn’t good. The next original film Pixar has in store is Coco, tentatively scheduled for 2017. I hope The Good Dinosaur is the exception to the rule, and not the beginning of the end for a beloved animation studio.
The biggest irony, of course, is that if this movie were to be made by any other studio, it would’ve had a different review. It is definitely not a great movie, but honestly, it’s really not that bad either. It’s just… good. As a movie scheduled to coincide with the US Thanksgiving holiday and the Singapore year end school holidays, the timing could not be more perfect for a family day out with the young ones (but not too young – some scenes may be too much for preschoolers to handle). The kids will love it, but the adults will need to lower their expectations significantly to enjoy it with their progeny.