Thursday, December 17, 2015

Film Friday: The Good Dinosaur (2015)

Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur is not doing well with audiences, and I’m not at all surprised. There is a fundamental problem with The Good Dinosaur, and that is that the film mixes a main character who is too cutsie with a plot that is anything but cutsie. The resulting mishmash satisfies neither those looking for a mindless baby distracter nor those looking for a more compelling story.


To put it simply, The Good Dinosaur is a western that uses dinosaurs instead of humans as the main characters. In fact, this is a very, very clichéd western, right down to the use of Sam Elliot to do voice work. The story involves the weak son of a noble farmer who must prove that he can live up to his father’s expectations and ends up in a survival film as he must find his way home through a dark and evil wilderness.

The story opens with the birth of the main character, Arlo, and his sister Libby and brother Buck. Their parents, Henry and Ida, are Apatosauruses. They live in a world where the dinosaurs were never wiped out and continued to, uh, evolve I guess (this is part of the problem with the film... it’s not clear what changed except that these particular dinosaurs are farmers).
Arlo is the runt of the litter and quickly proves not only to be incapable of doing the work required on the farm, but is a coward. He is afraid of basically everything. His father is patient with him however, though he simultaneously pushes Arlo to stop being such a whiny bi— uh, to become less of a coward. One of the tasks Henry gives Arlo in this regard is to trap and kill a pest that has been eating their corn... which they need to feed their chickens, who terrorize Arlo. The pest turns out to be a cutsie baby human! Oh goodie.

Arlo, of course, can’t bring himself to kill the human, and the human escapes. Henry then takes Arlo and chases after the human cave boy. They chase him up into some evil looking mountains, which end up flooding. The flood kills Henry and leaves Arlo stranded far away from home. Arlo then finds and befriends the human, who acts like little more than a puppy (he can’t even speak). The rest of the story is Arlo’s journey to find his way back to the farm.
Why This Film Doesn’t Work

This movie has a lot of problems, quite frankly.

The first problem is the simple blown potential. The trailer to this film was intensely clever. It asked, what would happen if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs missed the Earth? And then you see the asteroid shoot by the planet and all the dinosaurs who had looked up at its approach return to their grazing. This trailer offered limitless potential. It opened the door to anything. It promised a world where dinosaurs had evolved to something beyond just being dinosaurs. It promised a world where man and dinosaurs co-existed in some friendly or hostile way. It promised something you had never seen before. The film even skips a few million years at the opening, suggesting that we would see dinosaur society evolved into the modern world... whatever that would look like.

But none of that happened.

Instead, you get a world that is indistinguishable from dinosaur times except for the presence of one cave-boy and the existence of one dinosaur farm. That’s it. What a waste.
The next problem probably tells us why the first problem exists: the filmmakers never bothered to lay down the rules that guide their new universe before they began. Is there really a dinosaur society or not? There’s the farm. There are three T-Rexes who are herding the dinosaur version of cattle. But that’s all you see. There is no sense if there are cities or if there is an economy – does the farmer sells his crops? Do the T-Rexes sell their cattle or just eat them? The other dinosaurs they run into seem to be standard feral dinosaurs. So is there a society or not? They never say, and the result is that it’s unclear what kind of world Arlo really lives in and everything feels ambiguous and confused.
As an aside, I was also personally bothered by the sense that much of what they encounter felt vaguely stolen. The human reminded me of Mogli from Jungle Book; he even has a similar storyline – leaving for human companionship at the end. The nyctosaurus and pterodactyls reminded me of the vultures from Jungle Book. The T-Rexes reminded me of a combination of Bagheera and the elephants from Jungle Book. There's even a seemingly hypnotic horned dinosaur (a Styracosaurus), right at the end of a snake scene, which is clearly Kaa from Jungle Book. The scene chasing the human felt like the apes rounding up the humans in Planet of the Apes. The whole Arlo story felt like a number of westerns involving a weak son who must avenge his father’s death. And so on. This is the first Pixar film where I felt I could pick out things that were copied from other films.
The real problem, however, is that the film is a mishmash of concepts. For whatever reason, Pixar chose a main character who is better suited for the preschool set. He’s cute and whiny and stupid and whiny and seems made for backpacks and plush toys. Put him in a story with his imaginary friends and magic tree houses and he would feel right at home. But then they rammed him into a story that has a truly adult storyline in the sense of being dark and not at all funny, and about the subtle goal of proving one’s worth to oneself. This is a farmer western combined with a survival drama like The Grey or The Edge. It is not a plot that in any fits the childish Arlo.
The result of this is an entirely unsatisfying story. The preschool crowd will not like the dark, very unfunny plot. The people who might like the survival story will find the whiny, child that plays the lead to be too annoying and unbelievable for this kind of story. And people who come in having seen the trailer are going to wonder how this movie managed to ignore the entire magic the trailer promised.

Pixar is an amazing company that does a great job with its movies time and again, but this one is a total miss. This one is entirely unsatisfying. It’s boring, indifferent, and just out of place. And that’s too bad given the amazing potential the backstory suggested.



PikeBishop said...

Andrew: For an interesting "what if" on dinosaur alternate history, check out Robert Silverberg's "Our Lady of the Sauropods," a 1980 short story written before Jurassic Park, but very well could have influenced Crighton. It is available in this rather good collection. Enjoy.

ScottDS said...

A girl I went to high school with posted on Facebook that she felt this was a little too intense for her little ones.

No one's winning streak lasts forever. Then again, the Cars movies aren't exactly considered classics, either.

Koshcat said...

Thank you for saving me from another dude, although I have to say that the previews seemed dumb as well.

Raising chickens? So birds are thought to derive from dinosaurs so is this a creepy form of cannibalism?

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome, Koshcat. I thought the original trailer was great. But every trailer after that turned me off right away. The film then turned me off completely. I can't recommend this one at all.

Yeah, they raise these chicken-like things. But I don't know why since they are supposedly herbivores. Again, the film never understands its own universe.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, They've had some not so great films, and I would rank this as a serious failure. There really wasn't anything to like about this film.

And yes, I think this film is too dark for kids who might like the main character.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks PikeBishop. I would also suggest Dinotopia. Again, there is much potential with the idea, but this film didn't even try to achieve any of it. It might as well have dropped the trailer entirely and just gone with "What if a family of dinosaurs owned a farm?"

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