Because there apparently aren't enough animated dinosaur movies out there already, and because Disney didn't learn their lesson from the last one of these that they made, we have Pixar's The Good Dinosaur. We had a screening of it at work the other week, and while none of the creative team were there to present it, the reps from Disney and Pixar who were there, felt under some obligation to tell us how "close to the heart" this film was for all of them, and how this movie was all about the "power of family". Now, when someone feels obligated to tell you what the underlying theme is for the movie you're about to see, you know you're in trouble.
But then, The Good dinosaur has had nothing but trouble since its inception. It was pushed back from its original release date twice, had the original director and producer fired from the project, and with less than six months to go before its release, had nearly the entire voice cast replaced.
I'm sure there must be some point at which movie studios see a train-wreck like this coming and it's still possible to stop it. But The Good Dinosaur passed that point, and kept on a-rollin'. Presumably, they got to some point where they'd spent so much money on it, that it made more sense to just try and shove it out the door in whatever state it was in and try to recoup some money from it, than ashcan it completely and try to write off the whole thing.
You might have guessed by now that this isn't going to exactly be a positive review. The funny thing is, if you read many of the reviews for this film on Rotten Tomatoes, they all start off about the same way... "This isn't a bad film, but it's not one of Pixar's best," and then the reviewers inevitably find something about the film to praise (typically the visuals or animation), and end up giving it a begrudgingly positive review, as if the fact that it's a Pixar film somehow earns it a free pass. Consequently, the film has ended up with a much higher average score than it really deserves.
Well, I'm not giving Pixar a free pass.
The Good Dinosaur is, in fact, a bad film. It's borderline terrible. If not for Cars 2 (which will likely, and hopefully, stand forever as Pixar's worst film) this would be right at the bottom.
It's so bad, it's really difficult to stick to my spoiler-free policy to accurately describe why it's so bad. While I still hate the idea of spoiling any films for anyone, the simple fact is, there's nothing in this film that's worth seeing in the first place. But I'll use Spoiler tags where necessary.
First, let's get the one positive thing out of the way - the backgrounds in this film are astonishing. Even for Pixar, these are breathtaking visuals. They're hyper-realistic, to the point where you'd almost swear you were looking at a pristine, idealized natural environment. It's really next-level stuff, but it's sadly wasted here. I would have rather spent 90 minutes just watching the backgrounds, frankly.
So, onto the movie. The premise for the film is that the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs missed, and they continued developing into marginally more intelligent versions of themselves. The movie takes place when cavemen have appeared, so it's basically like a prequel to The Flintstones, except before the humans took over and enslaved the dinosaurs.
The film centers around a family of agrarian dinosaurs whose farm is in jeopardy, because a caveman child keeps stealing all of their corn. Now, I'm not sure how a 50 pound kid is eating enough corn to risk starving out five dinosaurs, but there you go. The youngest dinosaur - Arlo, who was born the runt of the litter (see also: Finding Nemo) - is tasked with stopping the kid. Of course things go wrong and the two of them end up lost, and have to rely on each other to find their way home.
Now, by this point the movie has already degenerated into a series of predictable clichés, and never manages to find a direction. It's a scattered mess as it jumps between being a family drama, a comedy, a coming-of-age story, an adventure, a buddy film, a western (I am not kidding - there are cowboy dinosaurs in this mess), a kid's movie, and pretty-much anything else you could think of to borrow from other, much better films. None of it is done well, either, as everything comes off as trite and half-hearted, and the characters are generally unlikable or at best unsympathetic. The only character that's remotely appealing is the caveboy (only ever refereed to as "Spot"), and he isn't even the titular character. This is supposed to be Arlo's journey, but as so often happens in animated films, the sidekick ends up being far more interesting than the lead, and this sidekick doesn't even talk.
Besides the jumbled, random mess of a plot, I had a real issue with how Arlo's story is resolved. He's effectively bounced along from point to point by circumstance, and by the end hasn't really learned anything. At the end of the film,
as Arlo and Spot are finally finding their way back towards Arlo's home, they see a family of cave people in the distance. It's clear that these are people Spot should be with, but Arlo picks him up and says, "Well, we better keep going home" and just walks off with him. Now, this is a complete jerk move on Arlo's part, and actually served to make the audience angry at him. Up until that point, Arlo hadn't been interesting or empathetic, but at least he wasn't a jerk. Now he's depriving Spot of his own chance to have a family?! So at some point, I was expecting there to be a moment of redemption, where Arlo would make it right. As they crested the final hill before arriving at his farm, I was waiting for Arlo to stop and say, "No - we have to take you back home, first." But that doesn't happen. Instead, at that very moment, the cave family happens to catch up to them, and Arlo basically lets Spot go with them with just the slightest of prodding. He doesn't earn that moment of redemption at all. It's completely cheap.
The ending doesn't get any better from there, either.
There's never any resolution about the family's farm. Arlo failed to get back before the first snow fell, which was a big plot point. Were his family able to bring in the crops in time without him? It didn't seem so, as they were seen weakly gleaning through the remnants in the corn field when Arlo finally arrived home. Did he fail to help save the farm? Were they just fine without him? It's never explained.
But then again, by that point I really didn't care. Maybe apathy killed the dinosaurs.
So the story is a disjointed mess, the characters are unlikable, and the writing is terrible. The few times the audience laughed at the film were due to it being embarrassingly bad (cowboy dinosaurs) or wildly inappropriate
(Arlo and Spot - who are both kids - experience a drug-like hallucination after eating some rotten fruit).
Finally, is the look of the film itself. Yes, the backgrounds were stunning in their beauty and realism. But the character designs had nothing to do with their environment, nor each other. The main dinosaur family looked like Gummi candy. The villains were ugly and indistinguishable from each other, the cowboy dinosaurs were heavily caricatured, and the humans looked like they were thrown together almost as an afterthought.
The Good Dinosaur is an eye-roller. There's not a genuine moment in the entire film. It's movie making by committee at its worst, and a huge stumble for Pixar. They refused to let die an idea that nobody thought was working, yet nobody had the courage to just walk away from.
Perhaps the biggest puzzler in all is this: why is this movie about dinosaurs? There's no reason for it. The fact that they're dinosaurs contributes nothing to the story. They could have been replaced by almost any other characters, and the movie would have been exactly the same. Maybe for the original concept it made sense, but there was never any payoff here. Maybe they figured they could still sell some cute dinosaur toys.
The "Good" Dinosaur, isn't. It gets a 2/10. Go see The Peanuts Movie instead. Or a documentary on Wyoming.
Sanjay's Super Team, the latest Pixar short, precedes the movie. It's an admirable and obviously heartfelt effort, but being such a personal film for the director (about being raised as a boy in America with a traditional Hindu upbringing), it felt more to me like a student film or an independent project, than a studio short subject. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and the film was certainly well produced, but for most of it, I just couldn't find a connection with it.
Up next... a little science fiction film that some people have been talking about.