Movie Review: The Good Dinosaur (with short: Sanjay’s Super Team)
(Rated PG for peril, action and thematic elements)
Over the years, the media loves to make it sound like the Emeryville-based PIXAR Animation Studios staff, are super-geniuses that know how to construct the perfect story with little effort.
In truth, it’s often through a lot of hard work that they end up with the final product.
In his book Creativity Inc, Ed Catmull (one of PIXAR’s co-founders) shared several of the first concepts for a few of their films. After reading over them, it’s easy to see that those concepts were nowhere close to what the final product was.
The company has faced film re-structuring several times over the years. Films that have had change-ups during the production phase have included Ratatouille, Brave, and their most recent release, The Good Dinosaur.
Dinosaur’s structural change-up occurred in the Fall of 2013, with director Bob Peterson removed, and Peter Sohn brought in as a new director on the film. This also pushed the film back from its Summer 2014 release date, to the Fall of 2015 (which explains why last year was PIXAR-less when it came to animated features).
Not a whole lot has been put forward from Disney regarding The Good Dinosaur. The marketing campaign for this Summer’s Inside Out release felt 4 times bigger, which made me question if this film would be considered a ‘throwaway’ film, when I went to see it.
In a world where an asteroid did not obliterate the dinosaurs, the large creatures have evolved to become the dominant species on the planet.
On a small farm, a family of Apatosauruses welcome three children into their lives. Of the three, it is the smallest named Arlo, that seems the most timid. Though his siblings give him a hard time regarding this, his parents try to assure him that he can do big things.
One day, Arlo is washed away from his homestead, down a long and winding river. Far away from the safety of home, he begins the trek back through unknown (and possibly dangerous) territory. As he does so, he is soon joined by a feral human boy, whom he nicknames Spot.
One of the things I’m unashamed to say regarding animated features, is that I actually enjoyed Cars 2. Despite it being the equivalent of The Phantom Menace in how people talk about PIXAR films, I found the story engaging, and emotional throughout the journey.
With The Good Dinosaur, I felt like I was holding my breath for the entire film, waiting for it to just grab my hand, and take me away fully into its storytelling…but that moment never seemed to come.
There were some interesting moments here-and-there, but overall, it feels like the film is PIXAR on auto-pilot (and it actually makes me wince to type that). There are some memorable moments, and a few that do tug at the heartstrings…but I couldn’t help but feel I should have felt ‘more’ regarding certain scenes. This was also one of the first PIXAR films I can recall, where I didn’t have a laugh-out-loud moment, and the small audience I saw it with, was rather quiet through most of the picture.
Director Peter Sohn has been a fixture at PIXAR for a long time. He’s done animation, story, voices, and more. However, his short film Partly Cloudy (which was the short that played with Up in 2009), never fully seemed to entrance me like a lot of people. Sohn’s style of direction reminds me a little of the issues I have with director Pete Doctor: they can’t quite make the structure work as a cohesive whole (though Doctor has improved greatly with Inside Out).
At the start of the film, a question popped into my head when I first heard Arlo’s parents speaking with a Southern drawl, but halfway through the film, it finally clicked: The Good Dinosaur is a prehistoric Western! The grand vistas, a (lawless) wilderness with mountain ranges and wide-open plains…and, even Sam Elliott voicing a T-Rex!
In fact, the point in the story with the T-Rexes, is about where it feels the most interesting from a character interaction standpoint. It reminded me of the feeling in Finding Nemo, when we meet up with the sea turtles, and while it might not have been as entertaining, it felt like the first solid character interaction scene Arlo has with the supporting cast.
Unlike going the route for photo-realism with its creatures, PIXAR chose exaggerated-realism for this film.
The T-Rexes look like someone melded a rider’s bobbing motions, and a horse’s gallop. It’s a little strange to see this at first, given how we’ve come to see T-Rex motion in the last few decades, but animation is often about exaggeration, and pretty soon, it helps to build ‘the character,’ rather than ‘the animal.’
Arlo is another example of exaggeration. With his knobby knees and large feet, his body looks the most gangly of his family, and it is rather easy for him to trip himself up… which feels like it happens a little too often for my tastes.
The film also gives us some other background creatures, that are evolved in a much different way. Some of them at first look familiar…but if you look a little closer, you’ll see the slightest of changes.
If the film lacks in giving us memorable supporting players, it finds more solid ground in its ‘a dinosaur and his boy’ story. The little moments between Arlo and Spot, really showcase the solid characterization PIXAR strives for in every film they do.
Another area that will most likely enthrall viewers, is in the amazing attention-to-detail given to the environments, and texturing on the characters!
I found myself on many occasions, just scrutinizing so much of the on-screen detail. PIXAR films have often been the kind that you put in your Blu-Ray player to showcase what your home theater system can do, and so many scenes in Dinosaur feel just right for such demonstrations.
Short Review: Sanjay’s Super Team
Of course, what would a PIXAR film be without an animated short at the beginning? Much like their experimentation with shorts like Boundin’ and The Blue Umbrella, Sanjay’s Super Team goes in a new direction.
While little Sanjay wishes to watch his favorite cartoon about a trio of superheroes, his father demands he perform their daily meditative rituals. Sanjay reluctantly does so…but soon, a small incident evolves into an imaginative battle in the young boy’s mind.
In a way, Sanjay’s Super Team almost feels like Peter Sohn’s short Partly Cloudy. Just as Sohn made Cloudy as a tribute to his Mom and their struggle to communicate, it appears that Patel has made Sanjay with the same idea in mind: a love-letter to his Father.
The overall story doesn’t really feel strong, but it is in its concept and execution, that Super Team proves itself a step away from the standard concept shots one finds. The stylization of Sanjay and the other characters, brings about a fantasy that takes place in an intriguing world of darkness and light, almost the way The Grid of Tron: Legacy was rendered.
Final Grade for “The Good Dinosaur”: B- (Final Thoughts: “The Good Dinosaur” is an earnest film that, much like its lead character Arlo, struggles to prove itself. However, it’s story can’t help but feel hollow in quite a few places, and is one of the first films from PIXAR, without a memorable cast of supporting characters. Though much like Baymax and Hiro, the bond between Arlo and Spot is what the filmmakers have chosen to focus on, which provides one of the bright spots in film. The amazing detail and rendering of the natural world is definitely one of the highlights of the film, and puts it on a level-of-detail similar to that seen in “WALL-E,” or “Brave”)
Final Grade for “Sanjay’s Super Team”: B (Final Thoughts: Sanjay Patel’s ode to his family, is a fun little short, that plays unconventional styles and storylines. More Eastern than Western at times in regards to its material, it shows that PIXAR is a studio that is not afraid to think outside the box)