Genre: CG Animation
Director: Peter Sohn
Cast: Raymond Ochoa, Jeffrey Wright, Steve Zahn, A.J. Buckley, Anna Paquin, Sam Elliott, Frances McDormand, Marcus Scribner, Jack Bright
Runtime: 1 hr 41 mins
Released By: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Opening Day: 26 November 2015
Synopsis: "The Good Dinosaur" asks the question: What if the asteroid that forever changed life on Earth missed the planet completely and giant dinosaurs never became extinct? Pixar Animation Studios takes you on an epic journey into the world of dinosaurs where an Apatosaurus named Arlo makes an unlikely human friend. While traveling through a harsh and mysterious landscape, Arlo learns the power of confronting his fears and discovers what he is truly capable of.
Pixar, most of all, should know that what goes ‘Up’ must eventually come down; and so it is with their second effort of the year, which not only is a step down from their brilliant ‘Inside Out’ but is also ultimately one of the least in their oeuvre. Grafting a familiar man-and-his-beast story around a young Apatosaurus named Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) and a feral human child whom he names Spot (voiced by Jack Bright), ‘The Good Dinosaur’ strands the former miles away from home in service of a coming-of-age tale that sees him learn to overcome his fears while developing an immutable bond with the latter. It’s a road trip all right, but one that though inspired in parts feels on the whole pedestrian to the point of monotony.
One certainly expects much more from the premise, which imagines an alternate path of evolution based on the supposition that the asteroid which killed the dinosaurs millions of years ago actually missed Earth. As such, the prehistoric creatures have remained Earth’s dominant lifeforms, learning to farm, rear chickens and build homes. On the other hand, humans are much further down the evolutionary ladder, no more or better than cavemen that go about on all fours sniffing things and peeing on trees. That explains the role reversal between Arlo and Spot, such that while Arlo speaks perfectly good English, Spot pretty much does so in grunts and growls while gnashing his teeth at anything it perceives to be hostile.
At first, the relationship between Arlo and Spot seems to cast in a much more complex mould; after all, they first make each other’s acquaintance when Arlo disobeys his father’s order to kill the critter who has been stealing their corn supply and instead sets it free, a move which in a chain reaction of events results in Arlo’s dad being tragically killed. It is somewhat disappointing to learn soon after that their unlikely bond is made up in fact of entirely familiar stuff, so in too short a matter of time, the former adversaries become best friends after Spot helps Arlo find food and navigate the initial ‘culture shock’ of the wilderness. With only each other to depend on, Spot also becomes Arlo’s unlikely companion as he makes his journey back to his family, made up of Momma (Frances McDormand) and two older siblings Buck (Marcus Scribner) and Libby (Maleah Padilla).
The journey back home for Arlo will be a test of his bravery and willpower, both of which Spot demonstrate in good measure, no doubt honed out of sheer necessity from having to forge his own way in the world. Their tender, largely wordless friendship is the emotional anchor which holds the entire movie together, and to first-time director Peter Sohn’s credit, accumulates poignancy over the course of the film, paying off in an exciting climax in which Arlo’s courage will be key to their mutual survival as well as an understated sendoff right after that will bring tears to the eyes of some. As is typical of such tales, it is the “beast” – or in this case, Spot – who steals the show, and the hunter-toddler swaddled in a diaper of leaves with his dog-like antics is adorable and hilarious to say the least.
Yet even though the cross-species bonding does have its emotional resonance, there is more than a nagging doubt that it could have been a lot, a lot more affecting. Across beautifully rendered CG backdrops that look breathtakingly realistic, our unlikely pair of heroes engage in sporadically amusing encounters with various colourful characters, including a kooky cross-eyed styracosaurus (voiced by Sohn) which tries to claim Spot as his own, a group of unhinged pterodactyls led by the “enlightened” Thunderclap (Steve Zahn), and a trio of cattle ranching T-rexes whose leader is the gruff and grizzled cowboy Bunch with the signature baritone (that’s Sam Elliott for you) as well as a pack of nasty raptors who have been preying on Bunch’s herd.
Between themselves, Arlo and Spot also squeeze in a hallucinogenic episode courtesy of some queer fruit as well as a game of blowing gopher-like creatures out of their holes in the ground. Notwithstanding the fact that these vignettes are entertaining in and of themselves, their broad, often madcap mode of humour feels jarring next to the quieter, more sublime moments between Arlo and Spot alone. More significantly, their very fleeting nature leaves one with the impression that they serve ultimately no purpose than as diversion from a thin story that is coupled with a formulaic, well-worn character narrative, with the same unfortunately true for the thrill ride-like setpieces that send Arlo and Spot tumbling down rapids.
Given how Pixar’s works are often held up as the gold standard of feature animation, it is more than a little disappointing that their latest is that mediocre. The technical accomplishments here in terms of recreating the natural rugged beauty of Yellowstone’s waterfalls to Montana’s grasslands are undeniable, but Pixar’s mantra has always been about putting the story and its characters first, and ‘The Good Dinosaur’ leaves us feeling short-changed on both fronts. Indeed, we would have been suitably impressed if this were the debut effort of a fledging studio, but as one bearing the Pixar brand name, this is no ‘Ratatouille’, no ‘The Incredibles’, no ‘Inside Out’ and not even ‘Cars’. It is barely serviceable despite evident steps at salvaging a troubled production, which by Pixar’s standards, is simply a letdown.
(One of Pixar’s weakest efforts ever, this technically accomplished but narratively bereft coming-of-age story feels prehistoric next to their illustrious oeuvre)
Review by Gabriel Chong