Review: "The Good Dinosaur"
"The Good Dinosaur," Pixar's latest cinematic offering, tells the tale of a young agrarian dinosaur on a journey to face his fears--both real and imagined. While being helped and hindered in his quest by a variety of creatures, Arlo's strongest influence comes from his relationship with "Spot," a young feral human.
Technically, the picture is as proficient as Pixar animation always is: The backgrounds of the American Northwest are gorgeous and border on photorealism. Water--whether portrayed as a flash flood, a glassy lake, or a rough river--is rendered particularly well.
The voice casting is on par, with standouts being Jeffrey Wright as Arlo's fond but frustrated Poppa whose misguided attempts to help Arlo overcome his fear start off his journey, and Sam Elliot's archetypal cowboy-dinosaur Butch who becomes a surrogate father and gives Arlo the insight to end it.
The movie tends to be a study in contradiction--the realistic backgrounds vs. the cartoony Arlo, and the placid life of an herbivore's farm vs. the rough violence of the carnivore cowboys. Even Spot follows scenes of slapstick dog behavior with ones of clearly human sentiment and understanding.
While there are a lot of very effective scenes in the film, there is a curious disjointed quality to it as well. Arlo spends a great deal of the movie as a fairly typical juvenile lead, but occasionally has some great reaction shots as experiences like trying to translate cowboy slang or watching Spot rip the head off a bug with his teeth clearly overload his sensibilities. The best segments are extremely original and show the potential Peter Sohn has as director--the Pet Collector is hilarious, and a "Harold and Kumar"-esque sequence fairly daring for Disney.
The more traditional parts of the story-line however, tend to feel a little too familiar to some of the classic Disney/Pixar filmography, and suffer from comparison. At this point in the game, if you're going to do a father-son story about fear and loss and identity, it needs to stand up to hits such as "The Lion King" and "Finding Nemo." If you're doing a boy and his dog story, it has to battle for recognition against "Old Yeller," and so on. "The Good Dinosaur" doesn't quite meet those standards.
The story also seems to drift a little from the original stated concept, which was a look at an Earth where dinosaurs became the dominant life form and evolved a civilization. While the beginning scenes show an ingenious look at how the dinosaurs adapt farming techniques to their biological constraints, later on in the film there are too many instances of dinosaurs frantically trying to grasp something with their obviously non-prehensile feet. Despite the fact that they are the product of millions of years of evolution, it still feels as though they're reacting to their environment in stunted human ways.
Ultimately, for all it's flaws, "The Good Dinosaur" is a beautiful film with some nice moments and an uneven story. When it works, it really works, showing that it might be Peter Sohn's first film, but it will undoubtedly not be his last.
Showing with "The Good Dinosaur," is the short "Sanjay's Super Team," which I wrote a little about here, when I saw it playing with "Aladdin," at the El Capitan Theatre. It is a fabulous short that I enjoy more each time I see it--probably the best since "Paperman."
Based on Director Sanjay Patel's own experiences as a first-generation Indian-American, it is not only wildly entertaining, but incredibly insightful into the conflict children of recent immigrants have, reconciling American pop culture with their traditional ethnic heritage. Well worth the price of admission alone.
"The Good Dinosaur" is presented by Disney•Pixar. Rated PG, it stars Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Marcus Scribner, Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Steve Zahn, AJ Buckley, Anna Paquin, and Sam Elliott.
Directed by Peter Sohn and produced by Denise Ream. Screenplay by Meg Lefauve, Original concept and development by Bob Peterson. Executive Produced by John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, and Andrew Stanton.
The film enters general release on November 25, 2015.