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In what is perhaps the single most inventive and intriguing opening in any film of recent memory, The Good Dinosaur starts with an inspiring idea. Sixty-five million years ago, a monstrous asteroid is bumped out of its orbit and sent straight for earth in what is at once a familiar (and theoretically valid) image. Life on this planet seems doomed, yet, in a humorous twist, is a false alarm as the rock skims right on by, leaving the dinosaurs below only momentarily bemused at the streaking light in the sky. Flash foreword to present day and the world is a different place. With the dinosaurs left unchecked, it is they who remain the dominant species, developing civilizations (to a degree), language, and an agrarian lifestyle. Mammals live in the shadows, scurry in the dark and have but a very small place in this life. Including Man.
One such farming dinosaur is a family of Apatosaurs who have a large swath of land rimmed by defensive spikes. They grow food and the parents raise three children with one, the runt, named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) who learns that he literally needs to make his mark (a paw print on a stone silo) to earn his keep in the family. Doing so means contributing to the farm and it’s not so easy as he is shy, timid, easily-frightened and scared of the penned-up chickens. His father (Jeffery Wright) attempts to give the boy some motivation by giving him the job of guarding the silo so the critters don’t steal the grain. The critters are of course, humans, but not like how we expect. They are feral, at least the one that shows up on the first day Arlo is on duty. The tiny human is a boy who runs about on all fours and is ferociously adorable, scurrying along like a mad badger with a big tuft of mangled muddy-brown hair.
Arlo’s father takes after him, and the two chase the human boy into the darkness where a sudden storm creates a powerful and sudden flood that, set by Disney law decades ago, requires Arlo to end up all by himself. The tragedy is profound and leaves the young dinosaur scarred. When he encounters the boy again some time later, he becomes filled with rage and again gives chase, falling into the river with the child and being swept away from the farm. When Arlo wakes up, he is in a foreign land where the only way he can survive is to trust the one animal he hates the most. A human boy.
Directed by Peter Sohn, who came aboard after several infamous changes in the production (which saw nearly the entire cast replaced and production team shuffled), The Good Dinosaur is an odd sort of film that has a number of good ideas but also an equal number of stumbles that hinder this curious production from being truly great. Utilizing a startling good looking and near photo-realistic sheen to the environments, the animation is a wonder to see with many familiar landscapes of the American West that at times seem like the real thing. The dinosaurs, however, are drawn more like cartoons, and I question the decision, but don’t doubt a lot of thought and consideration went into their design, no matter how strangely conceived. Arlo for instance is like a Playdough creation with massive googly eyes and big plodding feet. He looks like he’s made of plastic, but I assume that will make the toy’s all the more appealing.
As mentioned, this starts out with a great concept, but once the story kicks in, things settle right into the conventions and trapping of nearly all films in this genre with imagination wholly left behind. Bad guys are broadly defined (in this case, one of them being the weather), tropes are embraced (the ghost of a father comes back to inspire), and there is the long, long, journey of discovery and redemption where the little guy gets to be the hero. There’s no doubt that this film will captivate the target audience. The characters are bright and there’s not much dialog. A few moments do have impact, especially a touching scene where Spot (the boy) and Arlo wordlessly describe their families. It’s an effective bit of animation that hints at where the film was probably headed before the changes but disappears far too soon, replaced by a series of tired “escape from something” cliches that go on for far too long.
The Good Dinosaur certainly had potential, but ultimately feels flat despite moments of humor and emotion that strike but don’t resonate. Arlo and Spot just aren’t interesting enough and aren’t given much to do other than rescue each other, which is disappointing given the creative team behind them. Pixar’s Inside Out (2015) proved that the studio still has some of the finest storytellers in the animation business, but this outing’s uneven tone and uninspired script reveal that sometimes even the best miss the mark.