Friday, November 27, 2015
THE GOOD DINOSAUR Is Not-So-Good Pixar
THE GOOD DINOSAUR Review:
- This past summer, Pixar put out a genuine masterpiece with the brilliant Inside Out. Only a few months later, they've released THE GOOD DINOSAUR, and unfortunately, lightning doesn't strike twice. THE GOOD DINOSAUR has a lot of the recognizable elements of a Pixar film, but it lacks the sort of polish and effortlessly multi-layered storytelling that elevates a typical Pixar movie above the animated competition. This movie has moments that work well, but it struggles to ever gel into something that is cohesive narratively, thematically, or even visually. This feels like a movie that had a troubled production - it's weird, and not in a good way. This is not one of Pixar's best.
One of my biggest pet peeves in films and TV shows is when a premise is not exploited to its full potential. And THE GOOD DINOSAUR's intriguing set-up is, frustratingly, pretty much a nonstarter. The movie posits as "what-if?" scenario in which the asteroid collision that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs never happened. It imagines a world in which dinosaurs lived on through the birth and evolution of humans. Sort of. In practice, the movie has little to do with that premise - so little, in fact, that this very easily could have just been a movie about dinosaurs living during the time that they actually lived. The premise is basically there so that the film's protagonist - a beta-male apatosaurus named Arlo - can pal around with a feral, dog-like human boy named Spot. But Spot, really, could have been anything - like, say, another dinosaur. The idea of a world in which humans and dinosaurs co-exist is really never explored in any meaningful way in the movie.
So what is THE GOOD DINOSAUR ...? What is it actually about? Good question. The film is an odd mix of other Disney "boy-on-his-own" movies like Bambi/The Lion King/Finding Nemo, classic Westerns, and, well, dinosaurs. Wait, what? Classic Westerns? Yep, THE GOOD DINOSAUR is, sort of, a Western. It takes place in a Western-like desolate environment, features Southern-accented characters (including a T-Rex voiced by Sam Elliott), has a Western-y score, and has a lot of classic Western themes. Except ... the movie doesn't fully commit to being a Western. It sort of goes in and out of Western territory - which is a shame, because the movie's best section is probably its most Western-like one, when Arlo helps a group of ornery T-Rex's (including the one voiced by Sam Elliott) to round up a buffalo herd.
This is representative of what's so frustrating about the movie - it's got moments. But you can practically see the cut-and-paste nature of the film's development process all there up onscreen. Even visually, the film is an odd pastiche of hyper-realistic backdrops and environments paired with extremely cartoon-y character designs. The environs are often gorgeous to look at, but they clash severely with the characters. Still, THE GOOD DINOSAUR pulls off some eye-popping scenes of visual brilliance. It's just messy and inconsistent.
The same can be said for the story and tone. The film tends towards darkness, with an often surprisingly somber tone that seems to linger on sadness and death as opposed to reveling in adventure and fun. And yet, the movie's got some very silly sequences, including an extended psychedelic drug-trip sequence (yes, you read that right) that is positively Dumbo-ish in its trippiness. But overall, there is a jumpiness to the pacing that prevents you from really feeling like you've been following Arlo and Spot on a truly epic quest.
The other gripe here is that the characters are just not that memorable or endearing. Inside Out left us with several instant-icons. THE GOOD DINOSAUR gives us one of the more annoying sidekick characters in a while with Spot, whose bond with Arlo never feels 100% earned, and whose story-arc never quite adds up to anything as profound as the movie seems to want it to. The movie also has a weird habit of giving its most interesting supporting characters extremely limited screentime.
THE GOOD DINOSAUR, as I said, has its moments. And its those vintage Pixar-ian moments (witness the incredibly charming opening that shows baby Arlo and his siblings hatching from their eggs as their parents proudly look on) that make the film's overall unevenness stand out. It's not hard to see how this could have been something special and interesting if given a bit of a creative re-working. As it stands, THE GOOD DINOSAUR is destined to be something of an oddity in the Pixar cannon.
One quick sidenote though: the Pixar short that comes attached with this film, called SANJAY'S SUPER TEAM, is phenomenal - one of the best yet from Pixar. A charming and visually-stunning piece - about a young boy in a religious Hindu household who day-dreams about meeting his superhero idols - it's a real stunner that was easily my single favorite thing about seeing THE GOOD DINOSAUR at the theater.
My Grade: C+