Virginia: Welcome back to A Decade of Pixar, our 10-year retrospective on Pixar’s features. Today we’ll be looking at 2015’s second Pixar movie, The Good Dinosaur. It features decent vocal performances from Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Sam Elliot, and others, as well as a musical score provided by Mychael and Jeff Danna. Overall, I think this film is a mixed bag, but unimpressive at the end of the day. What do you think, Munir?
Munir: I quite like it. It’s an unpretentious film with a nice, heartfelt finale, but let’s back up a little. The Good Dinosaur was supposedly going to be released in May of 2014, following Monsters University and before Inside Out. It was going to be the directorial debut of longtime Pixar storyboard artist Bob Peterson (who also voiced Dug in Up), and it had the premise of “what would have happened if the asteroid missed Earth and didn’t kill the dinosaurs?” It was a story about how dinosaurs evolved to be gardeners, and humans were a little more like their pets. It had a star-studded cast, but story problems arose, and Peterson was removed and replaced by Peter Sohn, with most of the cast being replaced as well. The story was extensively retooled, and while it maintained the original premise, its focus shifted to more of an adventure and coming of age story between a young dinosaur and a human boy. It was postponed for a year and a half, and when it was finally released, it was met with positive, albeit not enthusiastic, reviews and middling box office results. The film was Pixar’s first box office disappointment, and it’s not as popular as some of the movies that came before or after. Personally, I think that even if the story is straightforward and has been done before, the characters, the backgrounds, and the plot carry it through, and it has enough heart to justify its existence. It’s not a home run, but it’s a nice little film in the studio’s canon.
V: I agree that the animation is gorgeous, and the premise is unique. I also think The Good Dinosaur has a great cast of voice talent. In theory, I even like Arlo’s character arc. But truthfully, I think the film is a tonal mess, and that keeps it from greatness. I also think that, despite him sharing a good scene with Spot in which they illustrate their families, their relationship isn’t strong enough to carry the film’s central emotions and themes.
M: I agree with the tonal dissonance of the film. I also think that it shares too many traits with The Lion King (father dies tragically, then reappears later to remind the hero of something), and I find Arlo’s character too cowardly. I mean, I know that’s his defining trait, and it’s the thing that he’s going to change throughout the film, but I believe the filmmakers went too far in the first act in making him afraid of everything to the point of straining believability. It gets better as the movie progresses, but the first act is rough. I, on the other hand, think that the relationship between the two leads is really lovely, and the film is stronger when they are together.
V: I agree with you on Arlo’s fear. It’s too exaggerated near the beginning of the film, to the extent that he’s afraid of his own shadow. I definitely see your point about how similar The Good Dinosaur is to The Lion King, particularly in the protagonist’s paternal relationship. It’s a shame the writing wasn’t strong enough to overcome the superficial similarities. One scene I do really like is when Spot is reunited with his family.
M: I love the depiction of nature in the film. It’s beautiful and brutal, and many animals get killed, but that’s how life works. I like how they didn’t romanticize it. I also like the scene when the leads explain about their families, the sequences with the Tyrannosaurus Rex, and when they say goodbye to each other.
V: I think another reason this film didn’t resonate with the audience like some Pixar movies is its episodic narrative structure. Events in The Good Dinosaur are largely unrelated, and it feels like Arlo and Spot’s journey is random at times. I also believe this relates to the tonal whiplash within the film.
M: Agreed. Also, I think marketing really mishandled the promotion of the film. Not many people were familiar with the movie, and there wasn’t much excitement for it. One thing that works in its favor is the score by the Danna brothers. It gives you that sense of adventure and wonder the story needs.
V: I agree; the music in The Good Dinosaur is absolutely gorgeous. Truthfully, I can’t remember a single promotion for this movie, and that speaks to your point. I also wonder if the title and look of the film reminded people too much of the poorly remembered Dinosaur by Disney.
M: Perhaps, although the character designs are far more interesting in this film than in Dinosaur. Some people complained about their look, but I like the contrast between the hyper-real, gorgeous backgrounds and the cartoony characters that inhabit them. How do you feel about that?
V: I like the designs just fine. Personally, I can get beyond my initial reaction to a film’s look if they win me over with the characters and story. Sometimes, I even end up enjoying the animation. Studio Ghibli’s films have had this effect on me. And by today’s standards, the first Toy Story looks awful, but we all love it. I think if The Good Dinosaur was more beloved as a whole, people would get past their feelings on the character designs.
M: I also like them because, in an ocean of CG animated films that look the same more and more, this one dared to have a different aesthetic. It would have been easier to design ultra-realistic dinosaurs, and I commend the filmmakers for taking a different and more interesting visual approach.
V: I agree. That would not have been the novelty in 2015 that it was for Disney in 2000. The more unique and original animated designs are, I find they get more criticism in general. I think that’s really sad.
M: Agreed. To finish up, I think The Good Dinosaur is, like its title says, good. It’s not great, and when compared to its immediate predecessor, it suffers in comparison. Still, I think it has enough heart and good character development (plus gorgeous animation) that it deserves to be seen at least once.
V: It’s hard for me to say if I think this one warrants a watch. Like any other film, your mileage may vary, and I don’t feel like I got much out of The Good Dinosaur. That being said, I still think the cast and musical score are on point. Overall, I think The Good Dinosaur is a mediocre film that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to come back for our Finding Dory review, right here on Geeks + Gamers!