Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Movie Review: The Good Dinosaur

The Good Dinosaur
Directed by: Peter Sohn.
Written by: Peter Sohn & Erik Benson & Meg LeFauve & Kelsey Mann & Bob Peterson & Meg LeFauve.
Starring: Raymond Ochoa (Arlo), Jack Bright (Spot), Jeffrey Wright (Poppa), Frances McDormand (Momma), Maleah Nipay-Padilla (Young Libby), Ryan Teeple (Young Buck), Jack McGraw (Young Arlo), Marcus Scribner (Buck), Peter Sohn (Forrest Woodbush), Steve Zahn (Thunderclap), Mandy Freund (Downpour), Steven Clay Hunter (Coldfront), A.J. Buckley (Nash), Anna Paquin (Ramsey), Sam Elliott (Butch), David Boat (Bubbha), Carrie Paff (Lurleane), Calum Grant (Pervis), John Ratzenberger (Earl).

Fair or not, Pixar is expected to produce a masterpiece every time out. During their 20 years of producing features, there are few forces in mainstream American movies that have been so consistently great in crafting high quality entertainment that both kids and adults can love. When we see a masterpiece like Inside Out just a few months ago, it’s a reminder of just how great they can be. The Good Dinosaur, Pixar’s latest, is not one of their best films – its more akin to their recent output like Brave or Monsters University – which is to say, it’s still way better than most animated films aimed at children being made today – visually stunning, smart, funny and touching – but just not quite up to the level of their best. Is it fair to call a very good film a disappointment? Not really, still that is what The Good Dinosaur will be for many.

The film centers on Arlo – a young dinosaur, born alongside his brother and sister – who are both bigger, stronger and braver than Arlo is. But Arlo has heart – and darn it, he tries hard, even if he isn’t quite capable of everything his siblings are. His loving parents support him – but also worry about him. Tragedy strikes his family – and in the aftermath, Arlo ends up chasing a small human – who we will eventually learn is called Spot – who he blames for the tragedy. They both end up in the river during a storm – and washed miles from home. With no one else to rely on, the pair rely on each other – eventually developing a friendship that helps to protect them on their journey home – a journey in which they will meet many dinosaurs – some good, and some decidedly not.

The story is admittedly relatively simple – it actually feels like something that would come out of Disney rather than Pixar – with its tragic beginning, and the ending where two characters from separate worlds having to make a choice. But while the story is simple, it certainly is well executed. The visuals of the film are at times stunning – the environment itself at times has an almost photo realism to it, that is offset against the more cartoony characters. Arlo and Spot make a lovable pair, and their bond is real. The film doesn’t flinch away from some of the more harsher realities of life in this time period – these moments, are the only ones that make me hesitate recommending the film for the youngest of children (for the record, my 4 year old covered her eyes a few times, but for the most part loved it).

The director is Peter Sohn – who has worked for Pixar for years, and is making his feature debut here. For a long time, I was under the impression that individual directors didn’t matter much with Pixar – but looking back, I don’t think that’s true (their best films are directed by Brad Bird, Pete Docter or Andrew Stanton- their worst are generally John Lasseter). The film had a troubled production – but the end result doesn’t really show those struggles.

The Good Dinosaur will not make anyone’s list of the best Pixar films ever made. It’s a little too simplistic for that, and the supporting cast of characters never rise up to the level of its central pairing. Still, in a landscape for animated films where most are fast moving, juvenile, high colored crap like Minions or Home or Hotel Transylvania, etc. – The Good Dinosaur is a genuinely moving, smart film that treats kids – and their parents – with respect. In short, while it may not have the magic of the best Pixar movies – it’s still a very good animated film. No one can be expected to make Inside Out every time out.

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