Saturday, November 28, 2015

'The Good Dinosaur' review

If The Good Dinosaur had come out in June, I have a feeling that its long-term reputation in the Pixar canon would be much better. Unfortunately, it's debuting in the immediate aftermath of Inside Out, Pete Docter's masterpiece that is, as of now, the best film to debut in American cinemas in 2015. Funny, innovative and touching, Inside Out is one of the most revolutionary films in years and one of Pixar's absolute best films. And there was simply no way that The Good Dinosaur could ever live up to that. It's still a very good movie. It looks gorgeous, features some really strong character work and makes some intriguing choices that are pretty bold and strange. It feels very much like a Western disguised as an animated movie, which is an interesting conceptual choice. But there are many times where The Good Dinosaur feels quite tedious, and ultimately, it isn't as complete of a film as some of Pixar's best. Undoubtedly still a step above the quality of most animated films these days, The Good Dinosaur is satisfying, but forgettable.

The basic premise of The Good Dinosaur is cute and quite interesting (although there's a completely different story that I wish the movie had told)- What if the asteroid that took out the dinosaurs had missed the Earth? At the beginning of the film, this idea is briefly displayed before jumping ahead 10 million years. We meet a dinosaur family led by Momma (Frances McDormand) and Poppa (Jeffrey Wright), who live on a farm and sustain themselves by growing their own food and building their own shelter (one of the more bizarre ideas that the film displays). Soon, their three children are born- Buck, Libby and Arlo (Raymond Ochoa). Buck and Libby are great dino farmers, but Arlo is a total coward who really can't do anything right. One day, his dad gets frustrated by Arlo's inability to kill the critter who is terrorizing their farm and tries to get him to overcome his fear. Unfortunately, Poppa gets killed in the process by a terrifying storm.

More dead parents in Disney movies. Shocker.

Later, Arlo is on the hunt for the critter- who just so happens to be a little boy named Spot- when he falls into the river near their farm, and is sent downstream into unfamiliar territory. Scared and far from home, Arlo must join up with Spot to make his way back to the family farm. During their journey, Arlo and Spot will encounter a wide range of dinosaurs, both friend and foe, and become closer than they could have ever imagined.

The Good Dinosaur is a weird movie, man. And going in, I certainly didn't expect that at all. But weird it is. There's a drug trip scene halfway through the movie where Spot and Arlo eat some plant that causes them to hallucinate. There's an unusual amount of darkness and violence for a Pixar movie- and let's not forget, Pixar isn't completely adverse to scary content in their films. But from mentions of blood drowning to intense dino fights to dead parents and crazy pterodactyls, this is an unusually vicious flick. And while some parents might not be pleased by that, there's something admirable about just how different this movie is.

I don't know if any other critics have said this or if other people have noticed, but The Good Dinosaur is a Western, through and through. The film's structure, its stylistic elements, the phenomenal music by Jeff and Mychael Danna- everything feels like a throwback to classic Westerns. And that's definitely a net positive for the film. It gives The Good Dinosaur a distinct sense of style and tone that is hard to replicate in the Pixar canon and in the animated canon in general. There aren't too many dinosaur Westerns and that uniqueness gives this film its charm.

Beyond just the stylistic and auditory influences of the Western genre, the pacing and leisurely attitude of this film is quite interesting as well and clearly connected to the Western motif. There's no strict plot that the characters follow along; it's more of a series of situations and characters that Arlo and Spot encounter. Cowboy dinos voiced by Sam Elliott and Anna Paquin, crazy bandit-esque dinos voiced by Steve Zahn and other wild creatures all pop up during the story, allowing The Good Dinosaur to give a vibrant and kaleidoscopic view of this prehistoric era.

The Good Dinosaur is also immaculately designed and a truly beautiful film to behold. The vistas are stunning, all the way from the snowy peaks to the rivers. Sometimes the animation is so stunningly realistic that I would have easily mistaken the animation for real life. So, in this aspect, major props should go to director Peter Sohn and the team of animators at Pixar. This is undoubtedly the most beautiful piece of work that Pixar has put on the screen ever and the new bar for animation quality.

And like most Pixar films, The Good Dinosaur has its heart in the right place. There's an element of familiarity at play here, but I did feel that there was a genuine connection between Spot and Arlo and it shows during some of the more intensely sad moments of the film. This isn't a movie that will make you cry for days like Inside Out or Toy Story 3, but there are some good old-fashioned pull-on-the-heartstrings moments in this film. But the thing that makes the impact slightly more muted is that you know they're coming, and the filmmakers try a bit too hard for them. But hey, the two kids in front of me started crying pretty hard at the end.

With beautiful animation, a unique sense of Western style and a good heart at its core, The Good Dinosaur should be a complete knockout. It really isn't. Almost instantly forgettable and with supporting characters that aren't as brilliantly defined as they were in other Pixar movies, The Good Dinosaur feels like a slightly lesser achievement. The pacing gets a little slack at times as well, and there's a fair amount of wandering that goes on. It isn't fair that a very solid animated film gets compared to a studio's great ones, but that's the curse of being a Pixar movie.

A tad disappointing, but a fresh, interesting and consistently gorgeous animated film, The Good Dinosaur should sufficiently delight kids of all ages and please the parents as well. The animation is phenomenal and I like the way that Pixar continues to experiment in different genres that allow for visionary directors to do interesting things. The Good Dinosaur might not be the best thing that Pixar has ever made, but there's plenty of good stuff here.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.4/10)

Image Credits: Fandango, Screen Rant, The Guardian, Joblo

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