Cast: (voiced by) Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Sam Elliot, Anna Paquin, A.J. Buckley, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn
Director: Peter Sohn
Writer: Meg LeFauve
This has been a landmark year for Pixar who have released two films in 2015 instead of just one. Originally scheduled for release in 2013, The Good Dinosaur ended up being pushed back by Pixar due to a problematic production which is why I thought there would be a bit more anticipation on the audience’s part. In the weeks since it came out the reception has been rather mild, considering the kind of attention Pixar’s films usually get, and it looks like The Good Dinosaur is set to be their first box-office failure. I cannot help but be surprised by this. Do people not like this film? I can certainly understand not liking it as much as some of Pixar’s other offerings but it is by no means the worst film they’ve ever made (hello Cars 2). Before this I always thought that the Pixar name was bulletproof and that even their worst films would always find an audience. By delving into this film I hope I can figure out what it is that has turned audiences off.
The film presents an alternative timeline where the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago misses the Earth. This allows the dinosaurs to evolve over millions of years into intelligent beings living lives that are more recognisably human. Arlo is an Apatosaurus whose family run a farm. Arlo is a scaredy-cat whose crippling fear of everything prevents him from getting any work done. His father Henry tries to help him overcome his fears, believing that deep within him he has the potential to do something extraordinary and to leave his mark. After an accident that causes him to be swept away from his family home, Arlo finds himself lost in an unfamiliar place where he must survive and attempt to find his way back to the farm. He runs into the company of Spot, a human caveboy whom he eventually befriends. With Spot’s help Arlo must learn to overcome his fears so that he might find his way home.
In my review of Inside Out I praised it as a shining example of Pixar’s incredible capacity for storytelling. The Good Dinosaur alternatively is a shining example of their extraordinary capacity for creating visuals. The look of this film is stunning. The landscapes are utterly breathtaking, the character designs are superb and there are certain moments in the film that can only be described as visual wonderments (like those moments with the fireflies). The visual quality of this film also extends to the storytelling as it features two characters, a dinosaur and a human being, who share absolutely no overlap in terms of language, culture or intelligence. All of their communication therefore has to be done visually through their gestures and actions. One of the strongest scenes in this film for me was when Arlo and Spot set up camp for the night and are able to talk about their families through entirely visual means in a way that they can both understand. It is such a touching and clever scene that is so effective in its simplicity and poignancy that only Pixar could have accomplished it.
The story itself is a simple one and certainly isn’t as intricate or creative as Inside Out, but I thought the simplicity was a crucial part of what made it affective. The story is simply a young boy’s quest to overcome his fear. It isn’t the most original moral to be taught in a children’s film but it is still a crucial one that I thought the film managed to teach in a clever way. Over the course of his journey Arlo meets some colourful characters and from them learns about finding inner strength and about being brave in the face of adversity. During one encounter he even learns about the value of fear, about how it is only possible to be brave when one is afraid. Admittedly the story and the morals it teaches are hardly new. Anyone who has seen or read this type of story before can guess the basic beats it’ll hit quite easily. However just because a story is predictable doesn’t mean it cannot be affective so long as it is told well. For the most part I think The Good Dinosaur is a well-told story and I enjoyed watching it unfold.
So, as someone who enjoyed this film and found it to be effective both creatively and emotionally, I’m still kind of stumped over why the film has been received the way it has. Do people not like this film or has it simply not found an audience? Pixar has never shied away from doing original stories with original characters but it has never hurt them in the past. The Good Dinosaur may not be Pixar’s most original story but, based on what they’ve done in the past, it still feels very new for them. There are also certainly issues that prevent this film from being the masterpiece that I found Inside Out to be. The characters for the most part are pretty basic, there are a few dark moments that pretty much come out of nowhere and I can understand how the familiar beats of the story could be tiresome for those who weren’t as invested as I was. While it is nowhere close to being one of Pixar’s best films I still cannot see a problem with this film that I feel justifies the poor reception it has received.
Maybe because Pixar has released such amazing films in the past with their most recent one only coming out last summer a certain infallibility has become expected of them that this film fell short of. Maybe the story was simply too familiar for viewers who expect more originality and innovation on Pixar’s part. Maybe people simply didn’t like the film because the story and the characters did not register with them. All I can write about with any real certainty is how I felt about this film and I liked it. I found the film to be visually breathtaking, emotionally satisfying and overall entertaining. Whatever issue people seem to have with this film, I’m just not seeing it. All I can see is an enjoyable film with a simple story, relatable characters and some of the most incredible visuals that Pixar has ever put on screen.