Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Good Dinosaur

Alternate Title:  Young-Earth Creationism

One sentence synopsis:     In a world where dinosaurs never went extinct, a young dinosaur, separated from his family, tries to find a way home with the assistance of a feral caveboy.

Things Havoc liked: Pixar, Pixar, Pixar, what am I supposed to do with Pixar? The great movies of Pixar's oeuvre stand out as some of the finest things ever animated, but the result for them has been that every Pixar movie is now judged in the context of Up or Wall-E or Finding Nemo, which has lead to complaints (with some justification), that if anyone besides Pixar had released Inside Out or Brave, it would have found considerably more acclaim. That may be so, but Pixar themselves are the ones that set the bar this high, so they really have nobody but themselves to complain to when we get an unreasonable expectation upon seeing their name pop up in the opening credits. All of this, of course, is nothing but a clumsy attempt to explain why it was that in the midst of a Holiday season that gave us Star Wars, Tarantino westerns, a glut of Oscar bait, and the new David O. Russel movie, I decided it was time to sit down and watch an animated children's movie about dinosaurs.

Don't judge me.

The Good Dinosaur, Pixar's second (and far less-prominent) feature film of 2015, is a very old story told via a twist that leads to more speculation than a G-rated kids movie usually allows for. The premise is that the Chixulub Impactor, the 6-mile-wide asteroid that obliterated the Dinosaurs some 65,000,000 years ago, missed Earth rather than colliding with it, allowing dinosaurs to continue to evolve right alongside mammals and birds. Alternate History (Alternate Pre-History?) is one of my personal passions, and the hints of the society that the now-evolved, albeit still primitive intelligent dinosaurs are piecing together were enough to sell me. Saurians and other plant-eating dinosaurs seem to have developed into agricultural farmers, while meat-eating dinos such as the therapods and raptors have become herders and animal husbanders, a nice shift from the typical "meat-eaters = evil" that you see in films like The Land Before Time. Obviously this film isn't about the anthropological implications of pastoral-agricultural relations among stone-age reptiles (we hope to publish next year), but an excuse to allow for cavemen and dinosaurs to co-exist without having to ban Evolution from the schools.

So what is the movie about then, if not a mediation on social structures that never were? Well, strangely enough, the story that all this weird ahistorical trapping is draped around is a kid-alone-in-the-wilderness-style adventure movie, a genre of film that used to be very popular on the direct-to-video circuit, and may still be for all I know, and had titles like Into the Wild, Far From Home, or A Cry in the Wild, which made them very hard to distinguish one from the other. Pixar crosses this genre with a more straightforward adventure movie, in which audience-surrogate protagonists travel through exotic lands and meet strange and interesting people while learning and using life lessons (the examples are too many to cite). The audience-surrogate protagonist in question is Arlo, the youngest son of a family of little-house-on-the-prairie-style pioneer Apatosaurs (Jeffrey Wright and an unrecognizable Frances McDormand), whose problem to be overcome (there's always one in these sorts of films) is constant, overwhelming fear at his surroundings. What Saurians capable of plowing furrows with their faces and chopping down trees with a single tail-swipe have to be afraid of is never really stated, but then fear is not rational by definition, especially in kids. Separated from his family thanks to a flash flood and some contrived circumstances, Arlo meets a mute human cave-boy whose role, oddly enough, is that of the dog (Arlo even names him "Spot") in this boy-and-his-dog-style genre. Having a five or six year old kid take on the role of the fearless animal companion who challenges venomous pit vipers and pterodactyls eight times his size while the dinosaur protagonist cowers in fear behind him is... an interesting state of affairs, but then this is all kids' parable stuff anyway, and it's handled reasonably well, to be honest. The messages aren't too obvious and the two protagonists are well-animated, well-voice-acted, and done up in Pixar's trademark sentimental style.

So what else is there to say for this film? Well for one thing it's gorgeous. Pixar's films are always gorgeous, even the mediocre ones, and The Good Dinosaur has a lovely, nearly photorealistic style for its backgrounds and landscapes. The film takes place (I'm guessing) somewhere in the American West (fitting the pioneer theme, I suppose), and sports a John-Ford-style eye for the impressive, rugged landscapes that the area naturally affords (I swear, I thought I saw Monument Valley). The water effects in particular deserve praise, be they placid, still rivers rippling down their banks, or the surging, muddy tide of a landslide-induced flash flood. Beyond the visuals though, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the existence of the legendary Sam Elliot (the man, the legend, the mustache), playing a cowboy tyrannosaur driving a herd of buffalo across the open ranges of the American West. I try to respect the breadth of opinions that exist within the world of film criticism, but frankly, anyone who fails to get excited at the prospect of Sam Freaking Elliot playing a Tyrannosaurus Rex who is also a cowboy needs to either stop watching movies (because they have become far too cynical) or start watching them (because they've clearly never seen one).

Things Havoc disliked: I said that The Good Dinosaur is gorgeous, and it really, really is, but for some reason Pixar chose a hyper-realistic animation style for the landscapes and backgrounds of the movie, and an extremely stylized, cartoony style for the characters themselves, which fits together kind of awkwardly. I recognize that a hell of a lot goes into animated character design, and realism is not necessarily one of the most important factors, but there's a visible clash this time between the characters themselves and the world they inhabit that simply wasn't there for most of Pixar's previous work. Finding Nemo for instance, managed to make its fish characters highly expressive and cartoony without making them stand out too egregiously from the underwater tropical world that existed around them. More to the point, Brave, whose software was refined to produce this movie, managed to use subtle shifts in how the characters were animated and how stylized they were to portray the changing mental and emotional states of their human or ursine cast. Maybe the more alien/up-to-date designs of some of the dinosaurs here (the filmmakers give us raptors which look a lot more like the semi-reptilian chickens they more or less were than Jurassic Park ever did) threw me off, or maybe it's a facet of the intended audience, but while neither the characters nor the background work is bad, the combination of the two is a bit... distracting.

Overall though, the issue with The Good Dinosaur isn't so much what it does wrong as what it doesn't do at all. Yes, this is a kids' film, and in consequence is going to have big, broad themes mixed with slapstick comedy, and a few winks to the audience for the adults, except that that's really not been true of Pixar's other work, or at least their best work. The Good Dinosaur is about a little dinosaur trying to find his way home with the help of strange people he meets along the way, and while that's fine, it's also... all that the movie is about. Compare that to Up or Wall-E or The Incredibles, which were about a great many things, some of them fairly subtle, or even to Inside Out, which was about some pretty heavy and abstract stuff (depression, epistemology, and even gender roles). There's nothing wrong with a simple film, certainly, but The Good Dinosaur feels like material that Disney might have put out in between one of their multiple golden ages, a time-filler movie that is designed to look nice and entertain the kids for a while, and then be over with.

Final thoughts:  Maybe I'm being too harsh, and maybe "just" making a good kids' film that isn't stupid is harder than it sounds (in fact I'm certain it is), but while it's always unfair to criticize a film for not being another film, it's almost impossible not to judge the Good Dinosaur in the context of what we've come to expect from Pixar. It's a fine, family movie overall, written well and animated gorgeously, with a number of strong elements that make it worth a watch if you happen to be looking for good kids' movies. But the previous entries in Pixar's oeuvre were masterpieces that transcended the label of "kids" film or any other genre for that matter, movies that had to be seen by everybody, regardless of their circumstances or background, speaking to people on a number of levels at once. The Good Dinosaur is not one such movie, but then that's not so terrible a sin either. After all, if every movie transcended the genre they were written into, then there'd be nothing special about Pixar's best work at all.

And hell, any movie that gives me Sam Elliot, Tyrannosaur-Cowboy, has to be doing something right.
Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time:  We've seen the kids' film.  Now let's see what Tarantino has to offer us...

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