When an animation company that’s this good at creating realistic textures and physics within their computers set out to use that talent to make a film starring dinosaurs, a movie that looks this cartoony and ordinary in its character designs is a disappointment. At least that’s the case for me, as others have seemed pretty hyped for this movie. Chances are they were punked into thinking Pixar movies are great again just because Inside Out was slightly more imaginative than Brave and Cars 2. This one mixes Lion King with Westerns so please do the math.
The Good Dinosaur is a very gorgeous film, don’t you get me wrong. The visuals are well-lit, flawlessly rendered and splendidly animated. I just wish this could have been the hyper-realistic story set entirely in a world ruled by dinosaurs that we were denied with movies like Dinosaur and Walking with Dinosaurs, both of which undermined the illusion of seeing what looked like real dinos by having said dinos talk. At least the makers of The Good Dinosaur realized early on that they wanted the animals to speak (and look terrible) and didn’t add insult to injury by retroactively tacking celebrity voice-overs onto a seemingly serious attempt at realistic dinosaur footage.
I know that The Good Dinosaur was a troubled production that allegedly caused most of the original cast to get replaced, alongside the director and producer, so I don’t know just how butchered this movie is compared to “what could have been”. The finished film nevertheless focuses on a young Apatosaurus called Arlo, who is small and weak, much to the concern of his parents (Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand). His siblings are much better at getting things done on their parents’ farm, because I guess dinosaurs are good at farming, and his one true friend becomes a feral caveman baby that ends up in one of the dinosaurs’ traps. Let’s not even bother to bring up scientific accuracy this time around because when dinosaurs can talk and run farms in an alternate pre-history where the asteroid never struck, almost anything goes.
Arlo lets the caveboy run free, which disappoints his father. After Arlo is forced to retrieve the child and his father eventually passes away, Arlo and the boy end themselves up far away from the family farm, low on supplies. But Arlo keeps the boy, names him “Spot”, and finds that Spot becomes bit of a local celebrity thanks to his fighting skills. They at one point come under attack from a cult of crazed pterodactyls led by Thunderclap (Steve Zahn), only to be saved by two young Tyrannosaurus (A.J. Buckley and Anna Paquin), whose father (Sam Elliot) apparently owns a farm of his own and whose herd of Longhorns frequently gets stolen by hungry Velociraptors. Yeah, so the Tyrannosaurus are good guys this time around, and they eventually vow to help Arlo and Spot make their way home.
Most of these dinosaurs speak like cowboys, by the way. I guess the makers favored this choice over having them communicate in modern pop-culture reference and yet I still don’t know what’s dumber.
The movie is pretty and occasionally heartfelt, but I must be frank and say that it is also ripe with underwhelming elements. There wasn’t anything particularly special about the voice acting (outside of the leading child actor being marginally better than most child actors), the story isn’t that much more imaginative than the first Ice Age film, it’s often dull, and there’s something remarkably lazy about the whole “dinosaurs who are also a wholesome family of farmers” shtick. It isn’t really that amazing a pitch when it comes from the studio who gave us stories like Wall-E and… well alright, maybe it’s a little like A Bug’s Life except with towering creatures instead of microscopic ones.
I don’t want to be harsh on The Good Dinosaur solely due to my own preferences when it comes to dinosaur movies, but speaking of “movies about towering creatures instead of microscopic ones”, I’m still waiting for that to happen with Microcosmos. I’m waiting for a film that stars real-looking dinosaurs that has no voice-overs, no clichéd characters, no “proper” story; just the animals living their life as they would have lived it in a paradise untouched by man and Kardashians. True, unlike in Microcosmos where all the insects were real and filmed in extreme close-up, a similar film about dinosaurs would involve a greater deal of CGI, but I believe in our potential as filmmakers nowadays. An animated film like that could still happen.
On that note: in terms of new animation breakthroughs, which used to be what Pixar brought to the table with each of its new movies, this one seems to be all about the realistic movements of clouds. Their Finding Nemo was all about getting water to look good, The Incredibles was largely about making realistic hair (something they would later perfect with Brave, to be fair), Ratatouille was about rendering truly delicious-looking CG food, and even something as underwhelming as Cars was their attempt at creating reflective surfaces and shininess as beautifully as possible. Toy Story, I guess, was all about making an entire movie inside of a computer to begin with so there’s that.
I may need to see The Good Dinosaur a second time to see how the clouds are animated, but something I appreciated upon my first viewing was the weight simulation. However stupid and non-realistic the dinosaurs may look in terms of color and facial features, they did move and feel like the heavy monsters we’ve all come to love since we saw Jurassic Park (or maybe even The Lost World). On that note, it’s actually kind of sad that the dinosaurs in this movie have a greater presence and weight to them than any of the raptors in Jurassic World.
I’ll post my rating and a trailer below. I might recommend the movie as an innocent romp for kiddies, though it does feel like it’s filler while we wait for Finding Dory, which is about to exist for some reason.