Review: The Good Dinosaur Is Pixar’s Strangest Film … and It’s Still Good
4 out of 5 stars.
The classic “a boy and his dog” story (I don’t mean that messed up Don Johnson movie) is a pretty traditional idea in movies aimed at children. Getting lost is seems pretty scary as a little kid, and the idea of being alone with only your pet or your pet getting lost can be downright terrifying. Storytellers love to milk that for all it’s worth, expanding to some different pets and including girls in these coming-of-age stories. There are the pets-alone stories like The Incredible Journey, Lassie Come Home, and Three Lives of Thomasina. Or the classic alone-with-their-pet stories like White Fang and The Journey of Natty Gann (a personal favorite). Or children freeing their wild pets from their homes, as in Fly Away Home, Duma, or Born Free. The point is that audiences love those concepts in movies—especially kids with their special connection to animals—and The Good Dinosaur is basically as cliché a take on that classic story as they come … only this time the dinosaur is the owner, and a human is the pet.
Arlo, our “hero” dinosaur, is the youngest and most cowardly child of two homesteader dinosaurs (Apatosaurus), farming mostly corn, a crop I suspect was chosen because it was the easiest to show a dinosaur harvesting. His brother and sister are tough kids and seem to have no fear, while Arlo is scared of everything, including chickens. The idea that Arlo’s great fear seems to be birds was a choice I totally appreciated; they scared me as a kid, too. Arlo’s parents want him to be brave, so he’s assigned to catch their corn thief and kill it by smashing it in the head, as is demonstrated with a pumpkin.
Does this movie sound a little more violent and edgy than some other Pixar movies? It is. Besides that, we have death, a couple of near-drowning incidents, terrifying birdlike animals, landslides, attacks on top of mountains, and one character saying “I drowned him in a pool of my own blood.” The movie is clearly meant to fall within the western genre, which makes its delay seem like a bonus considering all the westerns we’ve gotten this year. Westerns are violent and dangerous, and a lot of really good kids’ movies have that dangerous side. But this also isn’t live action, and considering how dark some of this movie is, Pixar might see some backlash from parents whose kids are scared. Being scared doesn’t mean a movie is bad (I often liked being scared as a kid), but it can be alienating when the movie seems to clearly aim at really young kids.
And Good Dinosaur often looks like a movie aimed at a target audience younger than most of Pixar’s films. The dinosaur family’s design is extremely round and soft, almost more like cows. There are barely scales on any of them, and they’re all in almost pastel colors, like toys you would give a three year old. They’re cute—even the T-rex family—and the fact that the dinosaurs weren’t wiped out by a meteor isn’t really an issue at all in this movie. Actually, the fact that these are dinosaurs is pretty much inconsequential to the story. They could just as easily be any other animals, but dinosaurs fascinate little kids and can be drawn to be cute and given those expressive eyes. No doubt about it, Arlo is a really cute, sympathetic dinosaur.
Is he a “good dinosaur” really? Well, not until the end. Usually, when we have movies about bravery, there’s a little more to that character than just being scared and then showing more and more bravery (or a different kind of bravery) as they move along on the journey. Arlo is just scared for about two thirds of the movie, and then REALLY brave during the last third. The journey is one he goes on by accident, not choice, when chasing the human boy Spot (definitely one of the cutest kids ever in a Pixar movie), falling in the river, and being dragged far from home. He then has to find his way home and takes Spot as his pet/protector, and Spot is very good at his job.
Along the way, he meets other dinosaurs and those birds I mentioned, and all the dinosaurs are meant to represent different “humans” from the western genre. Arlo is from the homestead, there’s a Styracosaurus that’s supposed to be a wise Native American (I think that is what they are going for), and the T-Rex family are ranchers on a cattle drive with a heard of buffalo. There are rustler Velociraptors (who steal cattle) and flying bandit Pterodactyls (had to look that up). It’s all a very weird world they’ve created mixing species. But even with the original setting, the story of Arlo is a little repetitive of the some other Disney/Pixar films; like Bambi, Lion King, Monsters Inc., and Finding Nemo.
But despite that one misfire, The Good Dinosaur is certainly an engaging and emotional movie, and the journey works in the story overall. Arlo and Spot are both adorable characters to follow (especially Spot, with his doglike qualities), and the movie has a completely different look: sometimes photo-realistic, sometime like an oil painting of the American west. While it was delayed and clearly suffers the scars of being taken apart and put back together, the movie as a whole is cohesive storytelling. Sure, it isn’t the masterpiece perhaps that Inside Out was this year (the one problem with releasing two Pixar movies in a single year), but it also stand up as a quality family film and well-made Pixar movie.
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