Jurassic Junk: Newest Pixar Film Falls Flat


Bryan Rubin, Photo editor

The Apollo Theatre advertises Pixar’s newest film, The Good Dinosaur. Despite excellent visuals and an appealing central concept, the film fails to live up to the high expectations Pixar has set for itself.

Christian Bolles, Editor-in-Chief

In an era where remarkable animation can be summoned with the flick of a well-funded wrist, animated films can’t get by on pure spectacle. Before cutting-edge visuals were even possible, Pixar was making movies that cut to the heart of basic human truths; as technology caught up to their ambition, they used beauty to enhance these stories, not to replace them. Perhaps if masterpieces such as the Toy Story trilogy, Up and Ratatouille didn’t exist, The Good Dinosaur would be a very good movie. But they do, and it isn’t. With the release of Inside Out earlier this year, the famed studio proved that their magic touch is still intact, which is why it’s initially puzzling that Dinosaur fails on so many fronts. However, it’s important to note that The Good Dinosaur was helmed by a first-time director, Peter Sohn, who has little to no experience, and that the screenplay is credited to seven different writers.

After an appropriately adorable opening short, The Good Dinosaur delivers its simple premise. On the eve of the impact of the meteor that would destroy the dinosaurs and send the world into millions of years of hell, the rock’s trajectory is tweaked and it whizzes past the planet with nary a feather ruffled. It’s an amusing visual gag to kick things off, and the movie quickly zooms forward millions of years, presenting us with an alternate history of what would have happened if the dinosaurs had been able to continue evolving for ages. However, the film fails in this endeavor. It refuses to take the premise in any kind of interesting direction whatsoever, choosing to set its gaze on a family of Sauropods living in the American South, much like it is today. But with dinosaurs. How cute.

The scene-setting unfolds, revealing our walking ‘unlikely hero,’ a crudely drawn Apatosaurus named Arlo, who is the ugly-duckling son of a no-nonsense, hardworking, kind couple on a ranch. I couldn’t help but picture how unacceptably cliché and contrived the dialogue, setup and pretty much everything about the film would have been if it had used people instead of dinosaurs. For example, after finishing a grain silo to store food for winter, Henry and Ida, Arlo’s parents, use mud to put their footprints on the structure. When Arlo, his mean brother Buck, and his obedient sister Libby, want to put their prints on it too, their father tells them something along the lines of “Not yet, children. Once you do something greater than yourself, you’ll be able to make your mark.” Of course, Arlo’s siblings both “make their mark” before him and darn it, he just can’t seem to do anything right because he’s timid. Sound familiar? It is.

When Arlo and his father chase after the creature that’s been stealing their crops and get caught in a flood that sweeps his father away in front of the protagonist’s eyes, the movie delivers its single truly bold narrative stroke. But in fact, plot points like this are the hallmark of films that are trying to be sad and edgy. His father’s death barely figures in the actual story arc, serving only to give the main character a reason to be sad. When Arlo gets hopelessly lost after chasing the creature into the wilderness, I couldn’t help but think the film would have been more powerful if he had his whole family waiting back home; as it is, he’s fighting to get back to a place that’s already broken.

The meat of the film comes once Arlo and Spot, the “creature” that turns out to be this alternate world’s imagining of a human, band together for the journey home. Spot is a wonderfully designed character, providing charm and entertainment without ever speaking a single word. The extended sequences of the pair traveling through the untouched American landscape are truly joys to behold, too, as these vistas are impeccably rendered to the point of near-photorealism. Thinking back to the real-life backdrops of the animated film Dinosaur back in 2000, it’s amazing to see how far we’ve come. However, these breathtaking backdrops are marred consistently

Most of them look like three-dimensional renderings of disproportionate and simplistic crayon art sketched on a lunchbox by a third grader. The worst offenders, other than the title character, are the raptors, which look like warped visions of cartoon dinosaur drug addicts. I wish I were exaggerating — these design decisions significantly break immersion and make it difficult to take the world itself seriously.

And what an under-realized world it is. From a studio known for flying conventional concepts to the moon, the lack of innovation here is staggering. They’ve essentially taken the South, simplified it to a lawless land of nothing but ranches, and replaced people with dinosaurs. I can’t stress enough how the movie literally does not take that concept any further. There’s no implication of any larger society, no dinosaur-specific ways of life and essentially no reason why any of this should be about dinosaurs at all. The only semblance of originality we get is a gloriously half-baked cult of Pterodactyls who worship “the storm,” but the dialogue for this segment is so dull and cliché that when these airborne cultists become the villains, it leaves one asking, “Wait, that’s all?”

None of this is to say that the film doesn’t have memorable moments. There are some genuinely touching scenes between Arlo and Spot, and some of the funnier bits are quite clever. The best parts of The Good Dinosaur have one thing in common, save a brilliant scene involving a deranged Triceratops: They’re wordless. Halfway through the film, after one such scene, I had a revelation I couldn’t shake. If the film simply tweaked its creature design a bit, set itself in a more original location and deprived its characters of the ability to speak, it would be far, far better. Even the most cliché moments would have benefited from a lack of dialogue. In fact, as I watched, I imagined this alternate version playing out in front of me and saw a unique, touching film with picturesque landscapes and sympathetic characters. Most of the times that a character opens its mouth, the script fails to match the underlying novelty this kind of a movie is capable of and only undermines its goals. Had the decision to go silent been made early in the production process, we would have been given a much better movie, as the designers would have been forced to use more creative alternatives to speaking. In some parts of the film, they actually do just that to illustrate the interaction between Spot and Arlo, proving that the studio would be up to the task. Ultimately, I left the theater feeling frustrated, and not just because of the unintelligible shrieks coming from the row in front of me for the whole film. I could so vividly picture a better film that Pixar’s inability to pull off the concept irritated me to the core.

The Good Dinosaur, while beautiful, is an overly clichéd departure of form for an otherwise sterling studio. Though the film has its moments, it fails overall to achieve anything new, which — for a movie premiering mere months after the near-perfect Inside Out — is more than slightly disappointing. Though kids under the age of 12 may enjoy the movie’s vibrant colors and overstated dramatic beats, anyone else could find much better ways to spend their money.