The Good Dinosaur
When a picture arrives as misconceived, misguided and generally misbegotten as The Good Dinosaur, and one knows it already went through extensive reworking to get here (resulting in its release being put back a year), one is left wondering how much worse the original conception can possibly have been. Surely it couldn’t have been more aesthetically challenged (the characters) or narratively less stimulating (a journey in which you come to know yourself – admittedly, it’s the classic construct, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that, only in how it arranges itself here). I’m not necessarily advocating the notion of Pixar seeing what was stewing and scrapping it completely (as seems to have happened to DreamWorks’ languishing B.O.O.), but it’s clear that, fall all their rigorous vetting and testing of ideas, they have just as significant blind spots as anyone out there; most usually, their particular problem starts with not being able to see beyond a saccharine, affirmative message.
Disney is no stranger to undistinguished dino productions, of course. Paul Verhoeven’s Dinosaur became the entirely forgettable feature of the same name directed by Eric Leighton and Ralph Zondag about a decade and a half ago. Bo Peterson (Up) was initially one of The Good Dinosaur’s directors, the premise being his, before Peter Sohn (previously only credited with shorts) took sole responsibility. It seems Peterson gave up over third act issues, but Pixar clearly had problems addressing the endemic ones (en route there were changes in characters, conception of the dinosaur community, voice casting).
There were also size issues; the difference between Spot (the boy) and Arlo (the lead Apatosaurus, who makes the dinos in The Flintstones look scientifically plausible) was significant, and Lasseter et al wanted to emphasise the boy and his dog (dino and his boy) aspect. Pixar has survived tormented features before (Ratatouille, Brave, the latter perhaps their most underrated film), but this one seemed to be fatally skewered on several fundamental levels, ones no amount of tinkering could remedy.
The high-concept isn’t in and of itself a problem; dinosaurs have evolved while humans have remained primitive. The developed reptile isn’t exactly a new one, from conspiracy theories (reptilian bloodlines) to popular science fiction (Doctor Who’s Silurians and Sea Devils, bemoaning the swarm of ape primitives infesting their once-fine planet). And that Whoopi Goldberg movie. And Super Mario Bros. There was even an early ‘90s Jim Henson dinosaur sitcom that substituted humans for dinosaurs, much as Sohn’s film. Although, that made them visibly evolved. Here, we have dinosaurs walking on all fours, capable of constructing houses yet unable to furnish themselves with clothes. Meanwhile the canine humans cover their nakedness. Obviously, this is a kids’ movie, but that doesn’t mean the concept isn’t a confused at its very genesis. It’s right there in photo real landscapes, contrasting distractingly with the overtly cartoonish characters.
And that’s just Problem One. Right from the off, this is aesthetically displeasing, and I’m sure that was half the battle for audiences lost right there. In attempting to make Arlo soft and relatable, mammalian even, Pixar have made him nothing like a dinosaur. More like a generic plush toy no kid would want to own; a dinosaur by way of Nick Park’s Wallace. Also, in attempting to making him different – a misfit, timid, maladjusted dinosaur, just like a lot of actual kids who will be watching, minus the dinosaur bit – the elements are stacked against him; he’s goofy-looking, and useless. Spot is as bad, a child as a faithful mutt, trying to bridge a line between infant and untamed, and ending up with the Feral Kid from Mad Max 2 as inspiration. The designs border on the grotesque, rather than the cute (contrastingly, styracosaurus Forrest Woodbush and the menagerie in his horns are quite appealing, but we only spend a couple of minutes in his/their company).
Apparently, the premise was designed to undermine the ideas of “what dinosaurs represent today, and how they are represented in stereotypes”. Except, they picked vegetarians as their protagonists, and you can see immediately that, as somewhat muddled as its delivery is, Zootopia was instantly more successful at addressing the idea of preconceptions. The concept here simply doesn’t support the content. Turning the picture into a part-Deliverance, part-western doesn’t help either, as neither device embraces the dinosaurs themselves. Additionally, it might not have been the best decision to have the characters sound like Tow Mater from Cars, just not quite so dim.
The picture’s affirmative philosophy (“You gotta earn your mark by doing something big, for something bigger than yourself”) is treacly but inoffensive, and of course is designed to emphasise that courage isn’t about great deeds but a laudable attitude. Fearful Arlo isn’t divested of fear (as Sam Elliot’s dad T-Rex, envisaged as a rancher, says of a great feat, “Who says I wasn’t scared? But you can get through it”) but learns to manage it, and his journey fosters an attitude of acceptance and openness; the pest “critter’ that so alarmed him becomes his best and most devoted friend. But still, all things in their place, it seems; despite being presented as effective canines, Spot’s rightful place is with a surrogate family of his own kind (a la The Jungle Book; the 1967 one, that is).
Despite the clumsy character design, Sohn and his team conjure some arresting images and sequences. You’d expect nothing less of Pixar. There’s cattle rustling with velociraptors, and in a striking inversion of Jaws, pterodactyls’ (think Jungle Book’s vultures, but more threatening) wings protrude from beneath the clouds. There also some oddly squeamish moments; Spot bites the head of an enormous bug (the sort of thing that would look at home in Starship Troopers or The Mist), and he and Arlo engage in a brief acid trip after consuming fermented berries.
Elsewhere, there are homespun platitudes courtesy of Arlo’s ghost dad, and the value of family is expectedly foregrounded, but Arlo’s pronouncement “I love him” of his pet human doesn’t feel earned, probably because the characters never take root as ones you care for or appreciate. The score, from Mychael and Jeff Danna, does its best to wear you down, however, the kind of insipid, inspirational mush that would make Randy Newman proud.
This may have been the least successful Pixar film, but it’s still preferable to Lasseter’s much cherished Cars franchise (no danger of being consigned to the pits, despite being the pits, there, as they’re his babies and he has final say; I expect fellow staffers whisper words of comfort to Peterson to that effect whenever Lasseter’s out of earshot). As a basic narrative, their sixteenth is dependable if unexacting, so it at least engages on that level. In terms of character, though, it missteps fatally. As for the short film, I’m not quite sure how Sanjay’s Super Team was nominated for Best Animated Short Oscar, as aside from some distinctive design work, it’s paper thin. Which makes it a suitable accompaniment to The Good Dinosaur.