When a person sees the name Pixar attached to a film, they immediately think of fantastic animation, exquisite attention to detail, wonderful storytelling, and memorable characters. These are the reasons why their studio in Emeryville CA is so renowned for making films that are beloved by kids and parents alike yet still pass the test of time. With their newest release The Good Dinosaur, Pixar builds upon their canon of work and yet manages to amaze at the same time. It’s a familiar yet different film that is definitely worth taking a look at.
The premise director Peter Sohn uses for The Good Dinosaur involves a hypothetical question: What if the asteroid that supposedly led to the extinction of dinosaurs never crashed into the earth? As a result, we’re able to get a glimpse into the lives of a family of apatosaurs who live off the land. Momma and Poppa (voiced by Frances McDormand and Jeffrey Wright, respectively) watch in expectation as their three eggs hatch—Libby, Buck, and Arlo. Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), despite having the largest egg, is the runt of the litter and is pretty much afraid of everything—including the chicken-like creatures he has to feed on the farm. He desperately wants to be like his bigger siblings and make his mark on the side of the family silo (accomplishing something “bigger than yourself”), but can’t muster the courage to do so. However, Poppa tells Arlo, “You’re me—and more.” But a scene that will immediately remind viewers of Mufasa’s death in The Lion King changes everything for Arlo and the family, forcing everyone to pitch in to keep from starving during the upcoming winter. When Arlo finds a human child named Spot (Jack Bright) in the silo, it leads to an adventure involving scavenging pterodactyls, T-rexes cattle-driving longhorns, and some harrowing encounters with nature itself.
Does the film work? I think it does, but there’s something about The Good Dinosaur that feels a bit trite. At its heart, the film is about overcoming fear but is disguised in the form of an “I’m-lost-and-need-to-get-back-home” story. I was reminded of a number of films as I watched: The Adventures of Milo and Otis, City Slickers, and the aforementioned classic The Lion King. It surprised me that Pixar would choose to go with a basic story, but it more than made up for it on the back end with the visuals. Do you remember the sequence in Cars where Sally is out for a drive with Lightning and passes underneath the waterfall? The hyper-realism of the visuals astounded me. Fast forward nine years to The Good Dinosaur, whose visual landscapes are so realistic that the National Park Service could use them in commercials. There were at three occasions where I had my mouth open in astonishment at what I was seeing on the screen. The visuals actually threaten to take away from the film, but there’s just enough adventure included so that doesn’t happen. The voice casting works fine—a positive, considering the entire film was re-recorded less than six months ago by a completely different group of actors and actresses (save McDormand). There are a few emotional moments in the film, so you may need some tissues by the time the credits roll.
(The animated short preceding The Good Dinosaur is entitled Sanjay’s Super Team and is quite different, adding a Power Rangers-type vibe to a seemingly innocent time of meditation. Our Darrel Manson will have a separate review of it.)
Two major themes in the film involve making one’s mark in the world (literally and figuratively) and the importance of family. However, I saw something else in the budding relationship between Arlo and Spot. The two aren’t on friendly terms for a good portion of the movie, but that changes when Spot shows Arlo where to get some berries. The two learn how to weather the storms they face together so that, when the climax arrives, it feels earned. It brings to mind a passage from Ecclesiastes: “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up” (4:9-10 NASB). The two will need each other many times in the film, and in doing so, they grow closer together. It’s an important reminder why it’s good to have friends and companions in one’s life. A me-against-the-world mentality (especially today) will lead to frustration, depression, and even further isolation from those who might want to help and come alongside to befriend and help. Companions provide an outlet to share successes, hurts, fears, and dreams—not to mention their ability to strengthen others in areas like accountability and determination.
On that note, grab a few folks and take them to an afternoon (or evening) at the movies. The Good Dinosaur, although a bit trite in its story, provides incredible visuals and lessons that can last long after leaving the theater. And isn’t that what good films are supposed to do in the first place?