The animation bar has been raised! (even as the story bar is lowered)
It has always been said that (nearly) every Pixar film raises the bar for animated storytelling. Other studios had a hard time keeping up with the incredible stories and emotional journeys Pixar kept churning out. The bar for animated storytelling was raised to unimaginable heights with this year’s Inside Out. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Pixar’s second offering of 2015, The Good Dinosaur. What can be said is that The Good Dinosaur features the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous, photo-realistic animated environments ever put on screen. The groundbreaking animation, along with a reliable blend of adult and kid humor that only Pixar can expertly balance, help carry along a serviceable (if not weak) story to ensure the delivery of a well-rounded family film.
The Good Dinosaur begins, first, with a visual cue that asks the question, what if the asteroid that killed off all the dinosaurs had missed Earth? Jump ahead a few million years and we meet a dino family living on a “farm”, since dinosaurs have evolved enough to understand agriculture. Next, it’s the birth of three sibling dinosaurs—Buck, Libby, and Arlo—with disproportionate and generally clumsy Arlo immediately in the role of family runt. Zoom ahead a few more years and Arlo fears just about everything, from the unknown world beyond the “farm” to the tiny insects that land on his adorably bulbous nose. Pappa dino works hard to teach Arlo to fight his fears and earn his literal mark on the family’s corn silo. Tragedy strikes and Arlo is left alone, far away from his home, with only his foe-turned-companion, a primitive human child, as company as he searches for the way home.
The aforementioned companionship between Arlo and the human make up the emotional core of The Good Dinosaur. It’s very easy to predict how every next scene will unfold, but the emotional impact of the turning points in their tightly growing bond is unavoidable (damn you, Pixar, for toying with my heartstrings yet again!). Some solid jokes are spread throughout the film, with some truly hilarious side comic relief characters, who are crucial since the film has a surprising amount of scenes in which Arlo is in peril, if not in a dark place. The problem that many adults may face is that the perilous encounters are so predictable (partly due to the traditional Western genre, characters, and story structure it purposefully parodies/imitates), it can become strenuous to sit through the sequences just waiting for the next obvious story beat to occur. And, Arlo is sadly not the most compelling central character to follow—he’s a pretty traditional, and kinda weakly voice-acted, underdog.
The main character of The Good Dinosaur is the animated environments. I still can’t quite believe that the dinosaurs weren’t just drawn into existing video footage. The rocks, water (the rain, my god, the rain!), and every natural element are crafted with such amazingly intricate detail. There were a few scenes in which I could sense the entire audience going stoic as we took in the mesmerizing sight of Arlo running through a flock of birds nesting on a river bank, or raindrops getting caught in the human’s knotted hair. It’s a relief that the character designs remain cartoonish, otherwise we could be trudging our way deep into the uncanny valley. But as it stands, the animated environments in The Good Dinosaur are the best ever rendered.
In the end, the positives outweigh the negatives. What seemed like a truly unique concept (re: astroid) gets muddied into a story we’ve seen a million times before. In fact, the asteroid missing Earth doesn’t really have much impact on the story. It gives an excuse for the dinosaurs to display some Western-themed behavior due to presumed evolution, but otherwise it has little effect on the intricacies of the plot. As with every Pixar film, each of us will decide where it lands in the standings of the studio’s filmography. The Good Dinosaur isn’t at the top, and it won’t be at the bottom, but will remain a solid entry that is unparalleled from a visual standpoint, for now.
The Good Dinosaur opens in theaters today, Wed. Nov. 25th.