Movie Review: “The Good Dinosaur”

Starring
Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Anna Paquin, Sam Elliott, Steve Zahn, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand
Director
Peter Sohn

An unsettling trend is starting to appear in Pixar’s work. When the visuals are more eye-popping than usual, it’s a sign that something more important is lacking (see: “Brave”). “The Good Dinosaur” is visually breathtaking, featuring the most lifelike water that has ever graced an animated film. The story structure, however, is one of Pixar’s weakest, feeling more like old-guard Disney than the kind of thing Pixar normally produces. There are valuable lessons for children to learn here, but there is also a fair amount of trauma. Little Arlo gets his ass handed to him early, then spends the rest of the movie trying to survive.

In “The Good Dinosaur’s” universe, the meteor that is believed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs misses Earth. Fast forward a few million years, and Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), an Apatosaurus of below average size, is born into a family of farmers. Arlo is also timid, and his father’s attempts to get Arlo over his fears come to a head when Arlo is tasked with killing the critter that keeps eating their winter food supply. The creature is caught, and it’s a little, feral, human child. Arlo can’t bring himself to kill the boy and sets it free. Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) insists on chasing the creature, but they lose the trail in a ravine, and then Arlo loses his father in a flash flood while in the ravine. First rule of Disney: kill at least one of the parents, and if possible, do it in such a way that the child feels guilty about it for the rest of his life.

Arlo blames the child for the death of his father, so when he sees the boy again going after their crops, he flies into a rage, but that rage sends him hurtling into the nearby river, and he washes ashore far from home. Arlo is tired, hungry and hurting, but something strange happens: the boy is there, following Arlo, and even helping him out from time to time. Arlo, viewing the boy as a pet, names the boy Spot, and the two orphan kids protect each other as they head back to Arlo’s home. Along the way, they encounter carnivores both good and bad, and Arlo learns that he’s much stronger than he thinks.

The one unique aspect of “The Good Dinosaur” is that the two leads are children fending for themselves. Nemo had the adult fish in the tank watching out for him. Dash and Violet’s parents were never far away. Russell had Carl. The voices in Riley’s head are all voiced by, and act like, adults. Arlo and Spot have no such support system, and that is actually one of the beautiful things about the story. There were no authority figures telling them what to do or how to think for most of the film; they had no choice but to go on instinct, which is where the film gets its name. Arlo might be small, but he is a good dinosaur, and when he sees other dinosaurs being wronged, he steps up and defends them, without a thought for his own well-being. Insert anti-bullying message here.

That story structure, though, is an issue. Pixar doesn’t normally throw stones in the water for the plot to cross. If anything, they bounce back and forth across the stones so that every character is fleshed out, at which time they finish the story. Here, however, the second-tier characters only exist to get the story to the next conflict. Even the sharks get a friendly callback in “Finding Nemo.” In this movie, the only callback is of the next-conflict variety.

“The Good Dinosaur” is gorgeous, but flawed. Its heart is in the right place, but Pixar of all studios should know that the story comes first.

  

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