Well Pixar, this was an interesting ride.
I walked into The Good Dinosaur expecting a cutesy comedy about two unlikely friends, and left rambling descriptors like “relentless,” “abusive,” and “way ‘effing darker” than any previous Disney tearjerker. To be fair, this not-so-prehistoric tale follows the same formulaic Pixar framework you’ve seen twenty times over, yet we’re leagues beyond some of the studio’s bleakest, gut-punching moments. Realer than Toy Story 3 and its incinerator march towards death. Harsher than Charles Muntz’s plunge in Up. Mortality, fear, isolation – these are just some of the themes that’ll pepper your child’s post-screening questions, which there will be plenty of.
Starting on a sweeter note, we’re introduced to a timid Apatosaurus named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa). He’s the runt of his family, and strives to be a brave dinosaur like his mighty Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) is, but Arlo can barely feed the family chickens without running away in fear. That’s until Arlo meets a feral creature (human) he nicknames Spot, who ends up being an unlikely companion when he finds himself miles away from home after washing far down-river. Arlo’s going to need to channel all his father’s strength to make it home, but with Spot by his side, it may be an easier task than believed.
Er, well, that’s more like the G-rated explanation.
In typical fashion, Pixar’s need to ruin our innocence within The Good Dinosaur‘s introductory material brings an
unexpected death. Most of the studio’s films begin with heartbreak, and Arlo’s comes in the form of Poppa’s passing. It’s Arlo’s decision not to kill Spot upon his initial capture that leads to Poppa being swept up by a menacing storm, and Arlo can do nothing but blame himself for his family’s loss. This doesn’t sound far from the Pixar camp, but it’s the continued remembrances of Arlo’s distress that snowballs as heavier themes inject themselves into what’s probably the least kid-friendly Disney flick in years. Death lurks around every scene, whether it be Spot instinctively ripping his meal’s head clean-off, or Thunderclap (Steve Zahn) devouring adorable woodland critters in swift gulps – a bleak reminder that the world is scary, horrifying place.
Yet, it’s these moments that also deliver equally-reminiscent bouts of raw, provocative emotional warmth in the form of compassion, understanding, and comforting gestures that still manage to yank a tear or two. There’s nothing particularly revelatory about the film’s message, as Arlo hopes to literally “leave his mark” (stamping a muddied dinosaur foot like a natural autograph), but you sympathize with Arlo because he’s bruised, cut, and visibly hurt. Director Peter Sohn puts Arlo through Hell and back, and it’s the lasting effects of both physical and emotional damage that beat viewers down without any regard for typical animated gleefulness. Arlo’s hardships detail the constant barrage of obstacles that life throws our way, but these reminders undercut an inspirational overtone that suggests everyone is destined for something special – no matter how monumental.
That’s the strangest quality about The Good Dinosaur – there’s more of the usual “we’re all precious snowflakes” confidence boosting, but it’s also tremendously brutal at the same time. Such a message struggles to balance-out with the idea that Arlo’s feats are just as important as his brother Buck’s (Marcus Scribner). Arlo fights long-horn wranglers, defies deadly odds, and pushes through a disastrous storm, yet his “mark” rests alongside Buck’s award for merely clearing some trees. I understand the message here is that everyone has their use, but are we ignoring the fact that Arlo’s family was infinitely more productive without him around? I mean, if we’re talking survival of the fittest here, maybe it was better that the family goofball got lost when work needed to get done…
Understand that you’re in for quite a shock with this watch, but don’t assume that all comedic efforts have been drained from this wilderness exploration adventure. Jokes are abound, starting with the very idea that dinosaurs and humans have switched roles in a time where the Big Bang never happened. Spot thumps his leg when petted the right way, and climbs about Arlo with a hyper-speeding curiosity that’d normally be attributed to a squirrel or equal critter. There’s a specifically epic scene where the duo eat rotten fruit and straight up trip balls (more awkward post-screening conversation fodder with kiddies), and another where the buddies play reverse Whack-A-Mole – prime sources of relentless laughter. Sure, that same laughter will shift to a semi-horrified gasp only moments later, but the laughs are still there!
While Sohn’s latest may be murkier than expected, Pixar creates some of the most beautifully rendered animations ever put to screen. All the characters boast these huge personalities, aided by a voicework from iconic grumblers like Sam Elliott, but scenery doesn’t benefit from such an advantage. That’s where Sohn’s team comes in, crafting picturesque scenic views pixel by pixel. As piney trees and dew-coated leaves dance in the wind, it’s hard to decipher animation from reality until a talking dinosaur stumbles on-screen. The Good Dinosaur is beautiful, brilliant achievement that questions how animation can evolve any further – something I’m sure Pixar will figure out.
It may not have the intelligent depth of Inside Out, or the delicious tastes of Ratatouille, but The Good Dinosaur has sure got one thing – heart. In the words of Gene Hackman’s Coach McGinty, “miles and miles of heart.”
Yet some might think that the film’s heart may not be in the right place, by brutalizing its adolescent, lost hero scene after scene. Such arguments were echoed during my own post-screening banter with fellow critics, and I assume others will raise the same questions. Audiences will be challenged to an animated flick that doesn’t pander to demographic safety, and this might be a movie that scares the living crap out of viewers just-old-enough to SOMEWHAT comprehend darker-than-expected themes. That doesn’t mean Sohn’s team fails in the least, though – just make sure you’ve got a hug ready and waiting for when you exit the theater.
The Good Dinosaur is a darker, more relentless type of Pixar film that doesn't break the studio's typical storytelling mold, but the most important beats are all still present.