MOVIE REVIEW: The Good Dinosaur



Somewhere inside their headquarters in Emeryville, California near Oakland, Pixar Animation Studios must keep a special vault housing a top-secret formula that calculates the exact amount of impeccable emotion for every one of their movies.  No matter if the themes are original, borrowed, or repetitious, Pixar's films always seem to inject the perfect amount of feeling to resonate where other animated imitators fail.  "The Good Dinosaur" is a perfect case for this.  There is very little newness to its narrative, yet it still manages to touch your heart just right.

Pixar's newest (and most troubled) production takes place in an alternate prehistoric timeline where dinosaurs never became extinct 65 million years ago after the asteroid misses Earth.  The many species of dinosaurs have continued to evolve in personified and anthropomorphic ways.  They occupy a planet alongside their newer mammalian neighbors and have families, jobs, and oral language.  Our main character, Arlo (Raymond Ocha), is the runt of three Apatosaurus children born to Poppa Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Mamma Ida (Frances McDormand), two farmers who make their family homestead at the foot of Clawtooth Mountain.  Because of his size, Arlo can't match his brother and sister in chores and is afraid of most everything.

Poppa is patient and knows Arlo will mature and gain the confidence he needs in due time.  To earn his keep with a special job, Arlo is given the task of catching the "critter" who has been eating and stealing all of their corn harvest.  Poppa helps him create a trap and, low and behold, the critter turns out to be a feral human boy.  Arlo can't bring himself to kill the trapped boy as ordered.  When Poppa takes Arlo out on a journey to find the human and finish the job, they are caught in a river canyon flood that kills Poppa and washes Arlo far away from home.

Stuck in the wilderness with little survival skills, the human boy comes to the aid of Arlo and becomes his friend, in a clever reversal of the "a-boy-and-his-dog" cliche.  Arlo anoints him with the name Spot.  Together, they forge onward to find their way back to Clawtooth Mountain.  Naturally, the quest is fraught with obstacles and encounters with other creatures and threats like a twitchy sage Styracosaurus, Sam Elliot's band of rancher Tyrannosaurus Rexes, scavenging Velociraptors, and Steve Zahn's crew of airborne Pterodactyls.  All of "The Good Dinosaur" is packaged with the unequal technical and artistic superiority that we have come to expect and value from Pixar's films.  That creativity impossibly improves with each effort.  The photo-realistic CGI settings and vistas in this film pop off of the screen with serene beauty and uncanny detail.  

When you step back, you will realize that you've seen "The Good Dinosaur" before, just in better and different parts from other classics.  We've seen the impetus that comes from a tragic father's death in "The Lion King."  We've seen the diminutive child trying to overcome lacking physical skills in "Finding Nemo."  We've seen a zillion "child overcoming fear" and "long journey back home" adventure stories, even as recent as "Inside Out."  In each case, the other films "wore it better" than "The Good Dinosaur."  

Composed by no less than five writing contributors from initial concept to final screenplay, the film's storytelling construction relying on those recycled and repetitive parts is, by far, the biggest weakness of "The Good Dinosaur."  Adding to that, thanks to a full re-casting of the voice cast, no character performance feels complete or stands out in a memorable fashion.  Most of the encounters are silly diversions from the emotional core that really matters.  Adorned with the Pixar label, that counts as a step back for them.

Still, as familiar and predictable as it turns out, by golly, "The Good Dinosaur" will still get you to smile greatly and tear up uncontrollably.  As aforementioned, Pixar consistently gets its emotion and resonance exactly right.  Longtime Pixar artist Peter Sohn achieves that signature Pixar punch effectively enough in his first outing as a director.  Sohn and company know how to pause for effect and hold a moment with their invisible camera.  They pulse those moments with a perfect score from the brother composing team of Jeff Danna and his Oscar-winning brother Mychael Danna ("Life of Pi").  The last ten minutes of this film will melt young and old hearts without fail.  While not an instant classic, "The Good Dinosaur" is a fitting holiday entertainment entree.

LESSON #1: FIREFLIES ARE AWESOME-- Come on.  You know it!  Watch this scene from the film and try to disagree.  Fireflies are one of nature's smallest wonders.

LESSON #2: OVERCOMING FEAR TOWARDS MATURITY-- The classic character arc of a child overcoming their fear or fears to become a more mature and confident being is all over "The Good Dinosaur."  It may even be a little overdone.  As with any character in this position, Arlo gets help but, ultimately, must overcome his fears on his own terms.

LESSON #3: MISSING FAMILIAL CONNECTION-- The "long journey home" portion of the story is all about missing family.  Arlo is still grieving from the loss of his father and is now in a place where he may be lost from ever returning home to see the rest of his family too.  In one of the more poignant scenes in the film, we learn how Spot misses the same connection and bond.

LESSON #4: EARNING OR MAKING YOUR MARK-- The most obvious message and mantra repeated on the nose throughout "The Good Dinosaur" is "earning or making your mark" as an individual.  Just like Lesson #2, one can get help to find their place, niche, and destiny, but it too must ultimately be an individual goal and accomplishment.