After an amazing Thanksgiving dinner prepared by unofficial “chef of the century”, my mom, I took two old friends from out of town to the movies. We saw Pixar’s latest, The Good Dinosaur. This marks the first time that the studio has released two films in the same year. I’m happy to report that both films live up to the standards we’ve come to expect from the cutting-edge company.
And yet, they take wildly different approaches.
Inside Out, as mentioned in my review, is high concept. It’s fast-paced and funny, but it’s borderline confusing. So much of the film’s appeal comes from the complex setting that is Riley’s brain and explanations of how it all works.
The Good Dinosaur, on the other hand, follows the tradition of Pixar’s earliest films, with a premise that can be summed up in one sentence. For example, Toy Story is, “what if your toys came to life whenever you left the room?” Dinosaur’s is, “what if the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs had missed?” In one clever shot, the alternate reality is established.
The high point of the film, for me, came right at the beginning. The establishing shots of nature — rivers, fields, mountain vistas — was so lifelike, I couldn’t distinguish the images from reality. Maybe it was the tryptophan kicking in, but I looked over to my friend and we exchanged an incredulous look. Pixar made it to the other side of the uncanny valley.
The rest of the movie never equaled in impact, but that’s not to say it isn’t good. It’s a very simple story about a
boy dinosaur named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) who gets separated from his family and can’t find his way home. The only one willing to help him get back is a human boy named Spot (Jack Bright), though Arlo blames him for his misfortune. One part buddy movie, another part hero’s journey, The Good Dinosaur hits all the right notes. Whereas Inside Out is a bit plot-heavy, this film is really about the characters and their emotional journey. It can be formulaic, but it can also be exciting, sweet, sad, and inspiring.
And scary. Not for adults, but certainly for young kids. I was struck by the amount of scares there were. There’s more than one encounter with a menacing villain, though the most fearsome is Steve Zahn’s Thunderclap by far. Then there are the traumatic scenes, like the event that separates Arlo from his family. Such scenes pose a more existential threat, but could be equally as terrifying for kids. I always loved the quasi-scary moments in PG movies. They were palatable because they were rare. Maybe there were two or three scenes per movie that had me peeking out through covered eyes. In The Good Dinosaur, those scenes are plentiful. That’s probably a good thing. To build courage, you have to overcome a fear, and that means getting scared. It’s no accident that Arlo’s journey will mirror that of the fearful kid in the audience. That’s the film’s greatest strength: it knows its audience.
I said I was underwhelmed by the movie, that’s because, despite being a kid at heart, I’m not the target audience. In many ways, the movie is just too simple. I had trouble forgetting this was a kids’ movie. Every setup, payoff, and character moment is on the clumsy side. My friends complained about the heavy-handedness on the way home. I don’t want to excuse the filmmakers for obtuse writing (subtler moments would surely have improved the movie), only it didn’t bother me. It felt deliberate. This is about a kid coming into his own. It’s about making your first real friend. There’s also an allegory for adoption slyly cooked in. The film is for young boys and girls and it’s way more important that they glean some meaning from it, than parents enjoying its nuance. For adults, the movie is likely to disappoint. For kids, I have a feeling it will be a formative viewing.
One last note on the short that precedes the film. Sanjay’s Super Team was… interesting. A boy butts heads with his father when he must forego his favorite superhero show for meditation. The ritual the boy reluctantly participates in is Hindu, but the message transcends culture and religion. There’s great conflict, characters, and comedy. All this, however, ends up being the frame story for an elaborate action sequence. One I didn’t like. It was a complete departure of tone and undermined the message of the short. I’m sure viewers half my age will go nuts for it, but to me the set piece they stuffed into a very heartwarming short, was abrasive and manipulative. It employs the same underhanded methods used to sell toys in TV spots. Aside from that sequence, the short is very poignant. In a strange way, it echoes the feature that follows — I just wasn’t the right audience…