Image source. Copyright Walt Disney Studios, 2015.
What if that asteroid didn’t strike Earth? What if the dinosaurs never went extinct? That’s the premise of Pixar’s latest film The Good Dinosaur. Ten years ago, when Pixar was in its heyday of creative animated production, it would have been an intriguing idea that would have borne a lot of fruit. Today, alas, it merely serves as fodder for a banal, kid-friendly coming-of-age story.
In Pixar’s vision, after the dinosaurs didn’t become extinct, they decided to become…farmers. We watch Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Ida (Frances McDormand), two ginormous, green Apatosaurus, as they set up a small farm with a large plowing field, a rock silo, and even a chicken coop. They have three children – Libby (Maleah Nipay-Padilla), Buck (Marcus Scribner), and the scrawny, overly timid Arlo (Raymond Ochoa). The whole, fairly monotonous purpose of this small family’s life is to keep the farm and harvest going every year. Libby and Buck both easily find a job they’re good at. In what seems to be Apatosaurus’ method of recognizing a child has reached maturity, they both easily earn the opportunity to engrave their muddy footprints onto their silo’s “wall of fame.” If only Arlo were as skilled as they. He freaks out over a task as simple as feeding the chickens. Small wonder his dad acts so frustrated for most of the beginning of the movie.
One day, Arlo and his father are caught in the middle of a flash flood. Henry gets swept away by the river while pushing Arlo to higher ground. Afterwards, overcome by grief and anger, Arlo accidentally drops into the river and finds himself whisked far, far downstream, miles and days away from any familiar landmarks. From there, describing the plot is somewhat pointless, because it’s been done hundreds of times in previous animated films. Almost all the turning points in the storyline are straight rip-offs from Brave (the inter-species communication between Arlo and a Neanderthal companion he meets later), Brother Bear (the footprint onto the “wall of fame,” plus the role of rivers and the whole “journey back home” idea), Finding Nemo (the “journey back home” premise x2, plus the idea of losing one’s cowardice via said journey), and The Lion King (the noble father dying for his son). So much for the Pixar that made actually thought-provoking films like WALL-E and Inside Out. With this movie, director Peter Sohn hasn’t done much more than recycle tried-and-true themes from movies that resonate far more powerfully than this middling entertainment.
Even films like How to Train Your Dragon, which weren’t terribly original, at least had an interesting premise to play around with. Initially, the whole dinosaur survival thing seems cool. But Sohn doesn’t extend it very far. Arlo and his family turn out to be the only dinosaurs within a 100-mile radius. Aside from a couple of surprisingly peaceful T-rex’s and a few vicious pterodactyls, we don’t see any sign that any other dinosaurs live on this planet. In Monsters, Inc., they at least had a booming metropolis of monsters. In The Good Dinosaur, Arlo might as well be living in the outskirts of northern Canada for all we care. There’s no opportunity to see how other dinosaurs might have flourished, evolved, or clashed beyond the limited sphere of the comfortable family farm. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that these dinosaurs are farming. Sohn apparently doesn’t think dinosaurs have anything better to do than merely imitate things humans have done already. The movie’s premise, unfortunately, turns out to be less a fascinating concept than an eye-catching gimmick.
On the scale of animated films, where dumb entertainment like Minions is at the bottom end and the best of Pixar is at the other, The Good Dinosaur is squat in the middle. For any other animation company, that’d be okay. But for an animation company that’s made so many memorable, emblematic animated films, The Good Dinosaur feels like a real disappointment, especially considering the comparatively thoughtful Inside Out came out just a few months beforehand. Perhaps it says something that four out of five of Pixar’s next movies are sequels. Everyone runs out of good ideas eventually. We poor Pixar fans continue to hope against hope that maybe, just maybe, Pixar won’t.
The Good Dinosaur (2015)
Starring: Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand
Running Time: 100 minutes
Produced by: Denise Ream
Directed by: Peter Sohn
Written by: Meg LeFauve