Two roads divulged in one. If we know Pixar well enough, especially from the ambition of psychological concept Inside Out (2015) and intergalactic WALL-E (2010), the team of The Good Dinosaur perhaps surveyed the road least taken, but then opted toward the most traveled-on road.
It’s not unreasonable to feel an instinctive guilt going into a film and being wary of its production issues because that imposes an inevitable bias and makes pity or favor inevitable to the film. But even then, it’s important to be familiarize with a film’s history in order to assess it. The preproduction of this film involved a tricky third act, which was linked to Bob Peterson, the film’s original director, release from the director’s chair. The original co-director Peter Sohn thus later accepted the helm as director, so what we have here is the final product, narratively stunted from evolving beyond itself.
The film opens with the alternative universe plot of the cataclysmic meteor missing the planet, creating a cartoony and intriguing what-if: the dinosaurs were allowed to evolve with a more progressive survival mentality. This would also lead to dinosaurs co-existing on the same Earth with humans. This is a plot that deserves more an epic feel but it shoots for the miniscule.
Young Apatosaurus Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) is born as the runt of the litter to doting parents, Momma (Frances McDormand) and Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) in an agrarian homeland where they can plow with their noses and cut lumber with their tails. Arlo can’t pull his weight in work due to being saddled with a chronically timid nature that causes him to flinch at even the smallest creatures. In an attempt to teach Arlo some strength, Poppa assigns Arlo to beat a pest in their crops, a little human feral child (Jack Bright). Arlo, though terrified of the child, decides to spare its life, leading to a domino chain of events that yanks Arlo away from home and ultimately adopt the child, named “Spot,” as his protector.
The film is so by the books that it would not be a spoiler to mention the death of Arlo’s Poppa. I had encountered Michael O’Brien, one of the animators of The Good Dinosaur, who paid a visit to my campus, and answered a few questions regarding cliches. Why must Poppa be killed off, reinforcing the tired tradition of dead parents? “You would have a different film if we suspected Poppa would be out there looking for Arlo. We needed Arlo to be on his own.” This intention is forgivable, but one I’m not sure I can fully agree with.
When Arlo tumbles into the river away from his comfort zone, he’s on his own, contending with greater forces “that would make a dinosaur feel small,” as the animators intended.
Perhaps nature is the true star of the film. Much like the vast almost abysmal ocean in Finding Nemo, the forest is rendered in a veil of mysterious and engulfing largeness while also glowing in pastoral beauty. Indeed its a formidable opponent and a photorealistic antagonist down to its bruising nature.
I have some defense for the perceived dissonance of the dinosaur’s cartoony designs and the photorealistic environment. The cartoony countenance in the dinosaur’s eyes does offer more leeway for Pixar’s brand of comedy and drama without being too anchored to realism. A more realistic design, like Jurassic Park or Disney’s Dinosaurs, would deprive the Pixar team of its innocent trademark. There’s a bigger issue to contend with.
I may be impressed that the character psychology is rich down Arlo’s slumpy walk and Spot’s hyperactive primal coordination. But while the mannerisms of movement are meticulous, the individual characterization don’t hold much weight. Arlo is the by-the-books uncoordinated underdog who’s eager to grow up, and Spot, though entertaining in physical friskiness, is defined only by his dog-like nature.
That’s not to say the simplicity of the relationship doesn’t work. The Arlo and Spot interplay is a typical but stable core of the film, which provides a heartwenching moment where Arlo and Spot communicate their grief through Pixar-classic gestures.
But here’s one aspect I refuse to overlook. The boy-and-dog dynamic is a genius idea, but it doesn’t tap into a dinosaur-human dynamic. Being that the base concept is the dinosaur-co-exist-with-humans scenario, I would expect a more psychological extraordinary development to the inherent separatism of the two species. But alas, it’s no further than the dog-boy dynamic.
And that’s just one of the missed opportunities. The movie dangles heavier plot threads, these narrative and conceptual risks but doesn’t yank these threads out of over-caution.
A sharp mind would observe conceptual seeds that are never fully blossomed in this final product. I may understand the principle of “killing your darlings” in writing, but it seemed to be a mode of retreat rather than a technique to this story. Because the pacing is ultimately a “make it home” plot, these seeds are left as fleeting what-could-have-beens, the sort you might see in the Art of the Good Dinosaur or blu-ray special features and wonder, “Hm, these actually might have made a better film.” For example, I detect nice diverse touches of a cultural, philosophical mindset in each dinosaur species – the Pterodactyls relying on storms as a giving deity, the T-Rexes’s rough-and-tough Western-genre saviness (Sam Elliot character, in his fatherly-guttural voice, preaches the film’s most poignant quote), a kooky Styracosaurus (voiced by director Peter Sohn), with an assortment of critters that protect him from the forest’s danger. However, the film passes over them, making their conceptual value segmented and fleeting rather than integrated or assembled toward a satisfying whole that would have elevated the premise. The same happened in Finding Nemo, but more breath was given to the ephemeral interplay with passing characters.
Whereas the also troubled production of Mark Andrew’s Brave turned out into a disorganized clutter by squeezing in multitudes of concepts, The Good Dinosaur ended up underusing its concepts.
But The Good Dinosaur is grounded in what it wants to be: A safe coming-of-age dog-boy that doesn’t veer off its path.
The result is a film that’s hard not to like, but even though I respect Peter Sohn’s direction toward the more serene road, I would have recommended him to try the road least traveled.
My Verdict: B