Mother nature takes center stage in this classical friendship tale.
The Good Dinosaur
It’s been an outstanding 2015 for Pixar. Coming just months after the studio’s conceptually elaborate and ingeniously inventive Inside Out is the more traditional, poetic and pure The Good Dinosaur. The former is a dazzling exploration of the human mind, the latter an agrarian ballad of the soul. Directed by Pete Sohn, The Good Dinosaur flips the classic boy-and-his-pet tale on its head with an odd role reversal: the towering beast is the talkative one, his human sidekick a non-speaking, mangy, doglike traveling partner. Still, the story’s mostly rooted in convention, fueled by good-natured, broad comedy and familiar life lessons to any and all Disney fanatics. It doesn’t break new ground in the same ways Inside Out does, but in the realm of visual artistry and craftsmanship, The Good Dinosaur is king.
Before any of the characters say a word, we get a demonstration of just how insane(ly talented) the digital artists at Pixar really are. Lush landscapes are blanketed by golden sunshine, shadows cast by the plants and animals living in tranquil harmony. It’s unmistakably our world (it’s breathtakingly convincing, really), but with a twist. As the movie opens we see earth 65 million years ago, around the time of the dinosaurs’ extinction. Rather than colliding with big blue, it whiffs and zooms onward into the cosmos, birthing an alternate timeline in which dinosaurs rule the planet for millions of years to come.
With knobby knees and an endearing lack of coordination, our leaf green apatosaur hero, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), is welcomed into the world by Momma (Frances McDormand) and Poppa (Jeffrey Wright), hard-working farmers who hope he and his siblings, Libby and Buck, will help them tend to the family’s land for generations to come. This first portion of the story feels the most familiar, with the kids learning responsibility by plowing the fields and feeding the chickens at the foot of a toothy mountain range, the teeming landscape looking a lot like the American Northwest.
Arlo’s a bit of a runt and has an issue with fear, an undesirable trait Poppa’s determined to stomp out by taking him on a hunting mission, their target a young human “critter” who keeps stealing from the family’s corn harvest. A dark storm builds during their riverside pursuit, and Poppa tragically gets swept away by a flash flood, Mufasa-style. The family mourns, and just a short time later, Arlo sees the critter swiping corn yet again. He pursues with vengeance on his mind but, like his father, he gets swept away by the river’s current, leaving him stranded miles from home. His unlikely companion on his journey home is the critter, Spot (Jack Bright), a homo sapien who scrambles around on all fours and barks and snarls at anything of interest (Looney Toon the Tasmanian Devil comes to mind). Together, the once-enemies learn to trust one another as they search for home, meeting colorful allies and baddies along the way.
Mother nature is unquestionably the star of the show, arguably taking precedence over Arlo and Spot. There’s a strong sense that nature is the be-all-end-all, this enormous, beautiful, unfathomably powerful thing that the characters are at the mercy of at any given moment. Many movies cast our planet as a pretty backdrop, nothing more. But the folks at Pixar are more thoughtful than that, invoking the almost religious reverence of the great outdoors of classic great plains westerns and the films of Werner Herzog. Dinosaur feels most like a western when Arlo and Spot meet a family of t-rex buffalo herders, led by a grizzly, slow-talkin’ patriarch, played by the most popular cowboy thesp of the moment, Sam Elliott (the designers cleverly fashion the characters’ top teeth to resemble the actor’s signature snowy ‘stache).
The movie’s got a lot on its mind, touching on themes of family, loss, fear, and even the timeless battle between herbivores and carnivores: early on, Spot scavenges for animals and grubs for Arlo to eat, all of which repulse the long-necked plant eater. Eventually, they bond over their shared love of fresh berries and even share a moment where they wordlessly consider the value of fresh fruit. What’s problematic is that the film only touches on these ideas and doesn’t follow through in a fulfilling way, save for the main theme regarding Arlo finding courage in compassion. The story also seems to be leaning towards a message of chosen family, but that all gets undone in the end when Arlo and Spot make a heartbreaking decision that, while emotionally wrenching, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
These issues are easier to swallow when you consider how touchingly the characters’ friendship is developed. The movie’s most tender moment involves Arlo and Spot using sticks and lines drawn in the dirt to express to each other the hurt they feel for their lost loved ones. It’s nice to have a movie come along every once in a while that lets its characters shut up for a minute and appreciate their surroundings. The Good Dinosaur is more humble than Pixar’s typical fare, choosing to refine and riff on familiar ideas and themes rather than build new ones from the ground up and live on the cutting edge. It doesn’t feel hip and new, but timeless and classical, like movies from Disney Animation’s ’90s glory days.