Pixar draws emotions. They bring us high and they bring us low. Inside Out brought critics high. The Good Dinosaur brings them low.
Set in an alternate timeline when the asteroid that destroyed the dinosaurs missed, The Good Dinosaur follows Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), an apatosaurus born to a family of corn farmers and the runt of their litter, in every imaginable sense of the term. As his siblings grow into their own and quickly start to take over the farm work, Poppa Henry (Jeffery Wright) takes the cowardly Arlo under his wing and tries to teach him how to trap and kill pests. Using a trap that his father set up everything for, Arlo catches a human child, later to be dubbed Spot (Jack Bright), that has been stealing the family’s corn, but doesn’t have the nerve to finish him. Henry angrily takes Arlo up the river after the creature, but is killed in a flash flood. Arlo is knocked out and loses his way, but is thrust together with the human child, who takes a shine to him.
The biggest problem with this movie is I don’t want to watch it. Arlo sucks as a character. He is a coward and a self-centered jerk, and it dominates his every word and every action. When they are first brought together, he blames Spot for the death of his father and repeatedly vows to kill him, but he clearly doesn’t have the strength of character to either take a life for any reason or, more to the point, to take responsibility for his own actions. Character arc is a vital thing for a story to have, and obviously Arlo gets a little better by the end of the movie, but you have to sit through an hour or so of him being an insufferable chicken to get to the point where he starts being a little more tolerable.
Movie characters are like people — you have to spend time with them to get to know them, and in order to do that, you have to like something about them when you first meet. With Arlo, there is nothing to like, and not a whole lot to like even by the picture’s end.
The movie is distinctly juvenile by Pixar standards, with a strict vegan morality that it pushes aggressively on the audience, to the point that it gets a little invasive. This contrasts in a bad way with the plot, which is kind of dark. Arlo’s father dies under circumstances that are completely his fault, he makes a lot of death threats and they encounter a few predators, but the movie, like its main character, clearly doesn’t have the nerve to kill anyone. This plot calls for a lot of murdering, and for some pretty good reasons — stopping something from taking your food, avenging your father, eating — and the fact that it has none really undermines the film. It’s like the long-form cinematic version of cutting off a swear word — you don’t get credit for how gritty your movie might have been.
From a technical perspective, the film is easily Pixar’s ugliest. The world is gorgeous, to the point that I thought the river was a shot of real water at the movie’s start, but the creatures are poorly rendered, cartoonish and entirely lacking in detail, creating an awful Pete’s Dragon look. There’s also a problem with the film’s sound, with lines edited together poorly. It doesn’t sound like people having a conversation, it sounds like someone edited together a bunch of one-liners delivered by people who were never in the same room. Wright’s lines are a particular problem, as he abandons his rich, deep voice to do a hackney Sam Elliott impression — which is made even worse by the fact that Elliott plays Butch, a tyrannosaurus Arlo encounters later in the movie.
On a storyboard level, The Good Dinosaur has a really weird relationship with its anthropomorphism and zoomorphism. The trailers ask the question, “What if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs missed?” and the movie proceeds to not answer that question even a little bit. Dinosaurs are given intelligence and distinct, class-based human personality traits. The apatosaurs are farmers, the tyrannosaurs are ranchers, the raptors are rustlers, that sort of thing. Humans are made into wolves. Spot barks and pants and howls at the moon.
You can’t have a story ostensibly about humans and dinosaurs interacting, and then take away everything from both of them that makes them human or dinosaur. What’s the point of having these fantastic creatures in a movie if you’re just going to turn them into something else?
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Ha ha ha, “pro-life gunman.” I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.