2015 marks the first time in history that animation powerhouse Pixar have chosen to release two feature length films in one year. It’s fair to say that that their first effort, Inside Out, achieved almost unprecedented success and acclaim for such an outside of the box premise, with the film about the living and talking emotions inside a young girl’s head being the runaway hit of the summer alongside Jurassic World. Jump to the holiday season and before we have had time to come down from the Inside Out hysteria, along comes The Good Dinosaur. Would Pixar’s second release of 2015 add to the studio’s stellar year, or put a dent in it?
The film’s narrative exists within an alternate universe in which dinosaurs never became extinct, and our protagonist, Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), is the small and nervous runt of his family who reside on a farm next to a group of mountains. Through a series of plot progressions, little Arlo finds himself separated from his family and far from home, left only with the company of a small feral child to make his way back to the farm and help prepare for the harsh winter ahead. Whilst Inside Out felt entirely innovative, daring and wildly original, The Good Dinosaur, in rather lacklustre fashion, reverts back to tried and tested kids movie tropes that make it feel like a jumbled, inferior mash up of old school favourites like The Lion King, The Land Before Time and Homeward Bound. The ‘against the odds’ journey home is one we have seen a hundred times before, and whilst the film might not be the most ground breaking animated feature in terms of cookie cutter narrative, one thing that it certainly does deserve credit for is the extraordinary aesthetic of the animation. Whilst the film’s characters are rendered in a classical goofy, exaggerated kind of way, the landscaping and natural features in which they live are almost photorealistic at times, with scene by water being especially breathtaking. This unconventional combination takes a few scenes to get used to, and might be something of an acquired taste, but personally I felt it really added something to a picture that would otherwise have been quite forgettable. In terms of audience engagement, the subtlety of the film leaves a lot to be desired. Any viewer over the age of seven can see the manipulative plot cogs turning with appropriately timed swelling music and predictable narrative direction, but having said that, I was still sobbing violently at every point when the filmmakers intended, so I suppose the emotional engagement of the picture, though transparent, was nevertheless effective!
Having criticised a lot of the film’s narrative choices, I will say that there are a few interesting incorporated elements in The Good Dinosaur, the foremost of which being the role switching of dinosaurs and humans in the evolutionary ladder. Whilst Arlo and his family seem to civilised and are able to speak, Spot (voiced by Jack Bright), his young child companion is more akin to an animal than a human being. Of course, this being a children’s film, the character’s unsubtle choice of name adds further and easier reference for younger viewers, and it is at least visually interesting to see a human being the predominantly animalistic presence in a film about dinosaurs. Having said that, the universe that the filmmakers have created tends to raise more questions than it answers, for example, an extended scene involving a group of cowboy-esque T-Rexes whose job it is to herd bison from one location to another. One, why are they herding? Two, why is one of the supposedly most ferocious dinosaurs performing such a menial task? I suppose to small children these scenes are nothing more than extra visual stimuli and necessary interaction for Arlo on his journey, but for a more critical mind like mine, they only serve to confuse the boundaries and rules of the universe and seem somewhat under-thought by a usually stellar Pixar team.
Ultimately, unlike some of Pixar’s very best work, The Good Dinosaur feels very much like a pure, cut and dry kids film, which, of course, is not inherently a bad thing to be, but in a post Inside Out world, I need experience something more than the tried and tested traditional narrative courses of past animations. If I were to recommend the film for any particular reason, it would be for the stunning visuals, the filmmakers took a chance on the unusual contrasts and I think they really paid off. Also, if you are in the need of a good old fashioned cathartic, cinematic cry, then there are at least three or four sure fire teary moments in the film that will meet your needs effortlessly. In the great canon of Pixar movies, I would have to say that The Good Dinosaur sits somewhere above the likes of Cars, Cars 2 and Monsters University, but nowhere near the vicinity of the gold standards like Up, Wall-E and now Inside Out. No doubt a holiday season family crowd pleaser, but in five years time I can’t see anybody raving about The Good Dinosaur the way we still rave about Finding Nemo, or Toy Story, or The Incredibles.