Filmgoer’s Flamethrower #2 – The Good Dinosaur

Posted: October 5, 2017 in Uncategorized

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

A story of two boys from diametrically opposed backgrounds (if Arlo the dinosaur counts as a boy) lost together far from home sharing the journey growing together as friends until they each find their respective families. So…I’m guessing Huck Finn meets The Lion King or The Long Walk Home. Pixar Animation Studios aimed high with this adventure about a dinosaur, the runt of the litter in his family, teaming up with a feral human/Neanderthal boy to find their way home after the big storm. Compared to the great movies from the studio, we land somewhere in the middle…good for distracting small children when it’s time to use the Rectangular Babysitter.  

However, I think adults will simply feel that the writing staff merely pulled out a screenwriting manual like Save the Cat, re-watched (read?) the required viewing for such journey stories, simply hit all fifteen beats and called it a day. Speaking true, Pixar doing an average movie can always dredge up good moments for people who need to feel something vicariously. This is why there is a Pixar Writing Manual floating around on Amazon (a possible future post when I block out the cash). Even average feels better when Pixar does it.

The plot. The asteroid that in our pre-history bonked near the Yucatan misses Earth by a razor thin margin. An unspecified few million years later, dinosaurs have evolved speech, agriculture, language and the thought that goes with language. Said dinosaurs have mostly not evolved the hands that human-centric assumptions about evolution and technological progression might assume is impossible.

In that world, a male dinosaur we’ll assume comes from the four-legged plant eater wing of the dinosaur gene pool (feels like a brachiosaur, but don’t quote me) tills his farm furrowing his field using the hard bone at the top of his head. He is called into the hut by his wife – “It’s time!” His three children, Buck, Libby and the small one, Arlo hatch from their eggs.

The children immediately go to work on the farm. Watering. Seeding. Feeding the chickens. Buck is the large firstborn, athlete of the family. Libby is the smart girl who can trick Buck into watering the fields for her by ambushing him with a water squirt causing him to retaliate with a bigger spray. Arlo is the scared little brother having trouble feeding the chickens in the coup because they sense his fear and chase him around the farm.

Papa tries to get Arlo to stand his ground with the chickens and the many other things in life. He points out the nearby mountain and the river that sustains their corn farm. But, nothing takes early on. Arlo of all the children has yet to put his muddy footprint on the rock silo built to store the corn for the winter.

Someone or something, referred to as a critter, is eating the corn from the silo. Papa details Arlo to deal with it. Trap the critter. Kill it because it’s stealing the food for winter. Arlo and Papa set up a deadfall trap.

Enter Spot, the feral human boy. Hungry and fending for himself the boy steals ears of corn. The first time Arlo being a sweet kid doesn’t kill Spot as instructed letting the critter go. Papa scolds Arlo and drags his son along trying to teach him to face his fears and follow through with things. The big storm rises and Papa dies saving Arlo from the flooding river. Grieving, Arlo resumes his life on the farm, until Spot returns for seconds from the silo. Angry, Arlo chases Spot into the wilds where they are both flushed far downriver by another big storm.

The rest is all about the journey home for both of the newfound friends. A journey filled with cattle driving tyrannosaurs, pterodactyls with a mean hungry streak and quite a bit of dangerous inclement weather. Arlo and Spot grow to depend on each other to where Arlo forgives his friend of blaming him for Papa’s death. Spot finds more people like him willing to take him in and Arlo goes home.

More so than any other Pixar movie Good Dinosaur goes for an animated look that really uses the proprietary 3D rendering technology to fully realize the illusion that the background landscapes could be real photography blended into the animated characters in the foreground. I had to look twice starting with the scene in the Asteroid Belt where the planet killer is knocked towards Earth only to miss by a hair. And the river, the water, the sky have all come the closest to looking real. I think the studio stepped back a bit for later movies because this much photo-real isn’t needed for a Cars movie or the still developing Toy Story 4.

Awesome visuals aside; the movie mostly lays flat when seen through adult eyes. As I write this, I’m having trouble calling up any themes or melodies from the score, which is a sign that the composer did a good job burying the music into the mood of the film. Or it’s a sign that I don’t expect soundtrack sales to be very significant. Time will tell.

As for the voice acting, it is solid and functional across the board in that I did feel the intended moments as directed, but nothing more. I didn’t feel all that surprised by the work, especially because the production put most of the bigger names a little further out from the main characters. I didn’t start recognizing actors until we met the cattle herding T-Rex family, with Sam Elliott as the patriarch. And I had trouble figuring out which role was played by John Ratzenberger.

My other concern was for the characterization of Spot. It took a moment to just going with it that Spot exhibited behavior more or less halfway between that of a wolf and a caveman. He covers up with leaves to protect his junk, but he spends more time on all fours like a great ape and howls like a wolf. He expresses great emotionality but never says a word of dialogue.

I’m sure that someone from Pixar will say something to the effect that Spot being an odd character depicted as being somewhere between a faithful human sidekick and a loyal dog was, in strict point of fact, an intentional act based on reading a few books about paleontology or something. All I’m saying on the subject is that I found it weird because either the sidekick is part of the conversation or he’s the growly but loyal dog (unless we’re watching A Boy and His Dog, where the sidekick is both).

The Good Dinosaur is simply the kind of fluff to foist on children until they become old enough to appreciate rapier duels or dogfights intended to blow up the Death Star. Could be worse.

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