You know when you see those young children that have an iPad or iPhone shoved into their hands at an airport or department store while their mother or father bobbles four items, audibly cusses under their breath, and tries to get through the next 10 minutes without messing everything up? That’s just about the same scenario as Pixar has given to us with The Good Dinosaur.
Ok, it isn’t the EXACT same thing, but pretty close. The studio, known for its innovating animation and heart-wrenchingly strong storytelling, feeds us some of its best visuals to date with flowing water and picturesque mountain ranges that makes us believe we are in somewhere surreal and stunning. But as we look deeper, The Good Dinosaur fumbles with story and character, cussing under its breath as it tries to make its way through the next 100 minutes until this delayed, and much maligned project, will finally be done.
This is the second Pixar film that has been released this year, following Inside Out this summer, but it is unfair to compare the two. The first one was a study into the mind, almost Charlie Kaufman for kids, that was built on self-meditation and the crippling effect of growing up. The other is a much simpler, straightforward plot that deals with one character attempting to make his way home after being separated from his family.
The Good Dinosaur introduces us to Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), a timid dinosaur who is doing his best to “make his mark” in a world around him that features accomplished personalities. His father (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) is the patriarch and judges merits on good, completed work and the strength to overcome adversity. That is something Arlo has been struggling with and his persistent failures, played against the successes of his brother and sister, push him to question his role in the whole scheme of things.
But tragedy strikes, and an angry Arlo is swept into waves of guilt (and literal waves of a river because he is taken away from his home when it floods).
The Good Dinosaur takes us into territory we have seen before. The scared young protagonist who must overcome his or her fears in order to either get past a tragedy or make their way back to where they came from. It’s like storytelling 101. But where this movie fails is not in giving us some original tale we haven’t see before, but a reason to stick around for this one.
First-time director Peter Sohn is clearly evoking the majesty that drives people to watch a John Ford film. Lush landscapes, coupled with troubled characters, and a terrain to thrust the chaos all out of them is quintessential Ford. But he also made characters rather than caricatures and this is where the latest Pixar film falters.
Why do I care about Arlo? Because he is a lost and scared protagonist, who we are cornered into rooting for? Don’t assume that’s a given. Arlo is boring. If anything he should be more afraid of how boring people think he is than how difficult it is to rid his family’s farm of the vermin that are terrorizing their food silo. Sohn, and a team of five other writers, are too heavily in damage control to ever be reminded that the character is just as important as the visuals.
And with this film, it is almost more imperative to make Arlo someone we enjoy being around because we spend the majority of the film alone with him — save for a fantastic sequence with a group of cattle herding tyrannosaurus rexes with one voiced by Sam Elliot. Having a bland, screenwriting 101 story is one thing, but giving us a boring and stale protagonist to follow is almost worse.
It is hard to completely dismiss The Good Dinosaur because you can harp all day long about the breathtaking visuals and desktop wallpaper worthy scenery, but there is so much behind that facade that is bad. We expect more from Pixar, and while this film’s behind-the-scenes mishaps have been well-documented, this doesn’t serve as an excuse for not giving us some of the basic tenets of filmmaking or storytelling.
Pixar failed us this time. Let’s hope this is the only time we are stuck with an iPad in hand while the parent runs around us.