The Good Dinosaur is a bland coming-of-age tale about overcoming your fears and making your mark in the world. It echoes loudly of classic animated features like The Land Before Time, Bambi and The Lion King, but unlike those films it lacks originality in its story line.
The film opens with the identical scene from the teaser trailer of the asteroid zipping past Earth instead of hitting it. A million years later dinosaurs are still the “king lizard” and have evolved to the point where they have farms, herd livestock, and live civilized — if isolated — lives. (Think Little House on the Prairie, but with dinosaurs).
We are introduced to an Apatosaurus family of which Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) is the patriarch. Frances McDormand plays Momma and together they farm corn and raise some frightening pseudo-chickens. They have three children: Buck and Libby who are boisterous and capable. And then there’s Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), who is terrified of everything.
The poor runt grows up being the butt of his siblings’ pranks and the cause of much sighing from his parents. Poppa tries repeatedly to get him past his fears and to make his mark. Finally, he tasks Arlo with the job of exterminating a critter that’s been stealing their corn. Skittish yet softhearted Arlo doesn’t have it in him to kill the animal — which ends up being a human boy — and lets him go.
The action doesn’t fly with Poppa and he forces Arlo to come with him to catch the varmint. There is a traumatic “Mufasa scene” that may spook the young children in the audience, but it’s no worse than when Simba sees his father trampled or when Bambi’s mother is shot.
In this instance, it is the river nearby the dino family’s home that drowns Poppa. Arlo survives but later falls into the same river after chasing the boy who reappears inside the corn silo. Swept away literally by the river and emotionally by his grief and misplaced guilt, Arlo finds himself lost and alone. There’s a lot of sniffling and tears that is reminiscent of An American Tale, minus the catchy songs.
The boy was also carried away with Arlo by the river. Like a stray dog he won’t leave Arlo alone and begins following him around, even feeding him. A begrudging and inverted boy-and-his-dog friendship forms. Spot, as Arlo names him, gives the young dinosaur the chance to be responsible not only for himself but for his human “pet.”
Spot ends up protecting Arlo and showing him how to survive. There are some sweet moments such as when Spot comforts Arlo after the loss of his father. There are some instances that show that humans have more empathetic capacity than the dinosaurs may realize. But that is never fully explored, nor is there the time for it. As Spot and Arlo journey home, the young dinosaur discovers his inner strength and the realization that being afraid isn’t a bad thing in of itself.
“If you ain’t afraid, you ain’t alive,” said a longhorn herding Tyrannosaurus Rex, played Sam Elliot.
There is just so much that feels odd in this film. At some points it feels like Ice Age other times it’s more like a prairie western. It’s difficult to swallow cowboy T. Rexes or Apatosauruses who farm and keep chickens. (Why do herbivores need chickens anyway)?
First-time director Peter Sohn certainly tried, but the story is just lacking and only made flimsier by the rote script. The voice actors did what they could, but it’s a tall order to accept a bizarre world where dinosaurs are living in some alternative Wild West.
There were already red flags fluttering around this project when it got pulled back from its original debut year in 2013. The Good Dinosaur is by no means the first Pixar movie to undergo a complete makeover or change directors midway. And doing that doesn’t mean a film won’t be successful. However, in this instance the story falls flat on the emotional scale.
Much of the humor, jokes and sheer whimsy we’ve come to expect from Pixar is missing from The Good Dinosaur as well. What humor there is isn’t memorable. It’s missing the joy and just fun that we’ve come to associate with Pixar. At least this film is beautiful to look at.
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