I feel I had good reason to rush to the very first showing of Pixar’s newest feature, The Good Dinosaur, on its release date (Friday 27th November). Plagued by a troubled production, which saw the film dismantled entirely, started again from scratch, almost entirely re-voiced, and delayed a year, almost everyone was curious to see whether the attempts to improve the film were worthwhile, and whether the film had been turned into a classic like Toy Story, Up, Monsters Inc or indeed their masterpiece from just earlier this year, Inside Out. With that film to live up to, our memories of it still fresh from its release in the 2015 summer, The Good Dinosaur had quite an act to follow. I myself don’t even remember a film having so much to top since the anticipated release of Frozen following modern-day classics like Tangled and Wreck-it Ralph. Obviously in that case Frozen proved to be a hit, to put it mildly, both financially and critically. Whether this will become the case for The Good Dinosaur only time will tell, but I can certainly say in my opinion, while we have an enjoyable enough animated film, with some genuinely great moments, it certainly doesn’t live up to the Pixar greats.
I can’t help but wonder whether the remaking of the film has actually worsened things than improved them – I’d certainly be interested in seeing the film it was supposed to be – because what we get here is beautifully animated with some touching moments, but overall a generic, safe tale about overcoming fear with a premise that has so much promise which is never quite delivered. This certainly isn’t what Pixar are known for. The premise itself – dinosaurs having never become extinct and now living alongside humans, as well as having a story about a dinosaur child and a human child becoming friends – has incredible potential but it isn’t particularly explored. One could also say it’s an idea that was first exploited decades ago, with classics like The Land Before Time, We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story, and even in some way How To Train Your Dragon. Plot points also feel familiar, with elements such as Lion King popping up, giving the film an unfortunate feeling of being unoriginal.
Set in an alternate timeline where the asteroid missed Earth and dinosaurs have evolved, and co-exist with animal-like Neanderthal humans, young Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) loses his father (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) in a tragic accident, and subsequently ends up swept away from his farm home with his new human pet Spot (voiced by Jack Bright). Together the two must embark on a perilous journey across the lands avoiding various threats in an adventure where the two will strike a chord and develop a touching friendship.
It’s a simple story, with little to no subplots, which gives the film a slight feeling of dragging on. It doesn’t allow for a terrible amount of characterization either, with Arlo being a child scared by everything but not much deeper than that. It evokes feelings of missing The Land Before Time, which I rewatched shortly before seeing The Good Dinosaur – while Land pits together several young dinosaurs with their own conflicting personalities, and tells a story in a very charming, old-fashioned Disney style (ironic considering the competition on its initial release with Oliver and Company, possibly the most non-Disney Disney film ever made), The Good Dinosaur simply has Arlo encountering random characters that we like but never get the chance to really know, like T-Rex ranchers (voiced by Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin and A.J. Buckley), while developing a friendship with another character who never really speaks or develops to a great extent. While the relationship between Arlo and Spot does provide the film with its most touching moments, and a couple of tear-jerkers, it never really sets off the waterworks like the death of Littlefoot’s mother in Land, or even any of the emotional moments of Inside Out. On top of that, The Good Dinosaur doesn’t seem to make much of an effort to be charming, perhaps due to aiming for a more modern sensibility than an old-fashioned one, and seems squarely-aimed at kids, despite making very random adult-aimed jokes at a couple of points, including one scene alluding strongly to drug use. This is one of the most adult jokes you’ll ever see in a Pixar film yet it is in one of their least adult films ever. And due to the tone the film has built up prior to the joke, you’ll find yourself scratching your head rather than laughing. This all adds up to giving the impression of a confused film.
There is an interesting voice cast utilized, with Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn and Pixar favourite John Ratzenberger popping up alongside the aforementioned actors. All do good jobs with their characters, but it is endlessly fascinating when compared to the original voice cast announced for the film years ago, like John Lithgow who was replaced by Jeffrey Wright, Lucas Neff who was replaced by Raymond Ochoa, and Neil Patrick Harris, Judy Greer and Bill Hader, all of whom played characters who were cut from the film completely. While Hader retained his role of Fear in Inside Out, perfectly suited to him, it is hugely interesting to think how different this film could have been. Whether it’d have been better or worse, I have no idea.
Certainly the animation in the film is done very well. The Neanderthal humans do evoke memories of The Croods (I’d rather not remember that film), but the dinosaurs are created interestingly, with an unusual (for Pixar) cartoony design. The backgrounds created are beautiful to look at, and some of the detail on the characters, such as raindrops landing on them, is really quite stunning. But if the story isn’t up to that standard, it seems a little bit of a waste of time.
While The Good Dinosaur is not Pixar’s worst film (I would in fact argue it was better than the second half of WALL-E, after the characters leave planet Earth), it does seem a little bit of a disappointment after the masterpieces it follows, especially Inside Out which it is only half a year behind. It is especially sad given the obvious effort to make it as good as it possibly good be, i.e. the complete dismantling. It merely lacks the emotional depth and substance of previous Pixar efforts, and even Disney’s most recent efforts like Tangled, Wreck-it Ralph, Frozen and Big Hero 6, and comes across a little like it could have been made by one of their competitors. Granted, it is Pixar employee Peter Sohn’s first film and an impressive first film it is, so perhaps we should give it a little bit of a break.
Don’t expect Inside Out and you’ll be pleased. I still recommend it for a nice trip to the cinema. Better than Kill Your Friends, Suffragette or Lady in the Van any day.