My Rating: 7 out of 10
In the alternate reality of Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, the asteroid that struck the Earth millions of years ago and wiped out the reptilian behemoths passed by without harming anything. This change allowed this story to take place, in which dinosaurs are the most evolved species on the planet and have learned how to speak and farm, whereas humans are more similar to dogs. This very simple plot follows a small and timid Apatosaurus named Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), who finds himself separated from his family and must find his way back through the dangerous prehistoric wilderness of northwestern America with the help of a feisty human toddler (voiced by Jack Bright) named Spot.
I went into this movie with mediocre expectations mostly because I had heard very little about the actual plot, but I had faith that Pixar would not disappoint and I was excited to see my friend’s name in the credits as he worked on the storyboarding team for the film. The very beginning of the movie made it seem much more oriented towards kids than most of the other Pixar films, however within the first 20 minutes or so that all changed and the story shifted into one of the darkest Pixar films I’ve ever seen. While dealing with dark material is not new to Pixar or Disney films (in fact, one very sad scene was easy to see coming because of this), what set The Good Dinosaur apart was how relentless the saddest was and how the ending wasn’t all that happy in comparison to the very beginning.
There were definitely some incredibly funny comedic scenes throughout the helped to put a damper on the bleakness of Arlo’s reality and some of the shocking violence that was going on around him. One in particular featured a cross-eyed Styracosaurus named Forrest Woodbush (voiced by Peter Sohn), who had everyone in the theatre busting out in uncontrollable laughter. The inclusion of many of the side characters also helped to add a little spice to the majority of the film, which featured only Arlo and Spot (the latter of which can only communicate with grunts and growls). With that said, the dynamic between the two main characters within these constraints was incredibly well established. The level of animation skill used on Arlo and Spot’s facial expressions made it easy to read exactly what each character was thinking and feeling at a given time.
Continuing from that point, the animation in this film was by far the best I’ve ever seen. Especially the landscapes, which were so photorealistic that I needed to look up afterwards whether or not the filmmakers had spliced actual video in with the animation (which they did not). The Good Dinosaur is for animated films what Gravity and Avatar were for live-action films; it set a new standard which will be difficult to match going forward. On top of this, I was glad to see a scientifically accurate rendering of a Velociraptor possibly for the first time ever on the big screen. There was a lot more of a focus on setting in this film than its predecessors, which is due largely in part to the fact that the main antagonist is nature and not any of the ill-intentioned dinosaurs that Arlo and Spot come across. Due to the very sparse feeling of plot in comparison with other Pixar films, The Good Dinosaur felt a bit more like a Pixar short that had been extended into a film, rather than a fully realized film of its own.
It was difficult after seeing the movie to pin down exactly how I felt about it. Directly after leaving the theatre, we all agreed that it was too sad and too dark and too scary for most young kids to be able to deal with, which was odd since the beginning definitely set things up to be kid-friendly. I feel that the coming-of-age theme combined with the man vs. nature struggle is what made the film go in such a dark direction. After a few days had passed, I realized the allegory that the filmmakers were using and had a deeper appreciation for the story, but still felt that the moral was not worth quite so much sadness and scariness in what could have been a good film for all ages. While one of the things I love about Pixar movies is that they aren’t just for kids, all the prior films have had a good balance between the adult and juvenile subject matter that made shocking scenes easier to deal with and move on from.
The idea behind the story, in my mind at least, is that the adult world (like the prehistoric wilderness Arlo finds himself in) is a scary place where lots of bad things happen, but where you can meet good people as well. In order to survive in such a place, you need to have courage and stand up to your fears, but not become desensitized to them either. I liked this message, but felt it was probably something that older kids could better appreciate, whereas younger kids may just be upset and scared by the plot. As a final note, there were definitely a few scenes that seemed inserted for the sole purpose of making audiences emotional, which seemed like a little bit of a cop-out for a company like Pixar that can easily make audiences emotional using unique and clever plot devices.
Overall, I recommend seeing The Good Dinosaur if you are a big Pixar fan and are curious about seeing a film that is very basic in its plot, but very bleak in its subject matter. This is definitely a movie where you will find yourself close to tears far more than you find yourself laughing out loud. Part of my surprise definitely came from the fact that I knew very little going in and was sort of expecting a Land Before Time kind of story where there was a certain amount of sadness involved, but the happy ending and overall message made up for it (similar to how Up and Finding Nemo could make audiences emotional and then take them on an exciting and uplifting journey). The Good Dinosaur is not a movie I recommend to family’s with very young kids, it is probably more appropriate for ages 9 and above. Again, this film is well done with lots of incredible animation and voice acting, the characters are very detailed, but the overall theme is foreboding and feels more like a Western than a Pixar film.