The Good Dinosaur was expected to have many firsts for Pixar. It was the first script written entirely by a woman, Meg LaFauve. This was their first film to take place in prehistoric times. The film was Peter Sohn’s first time directing feature length animated film. For the first time, two composers are responsible for the soundtrack, Mychael and Jeff Danna. It will also become Pixar’s first flop, making just $168 million worldwide. In the United States, it still hasn’t reached $100 million.
The film often suffers from one of the worst sins in film-making…boring dinosaurs. The first dinosaurs introduced are Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Ida (Frances McDormand). These Apatosaurs run a farm full of chores which moviegoers have to watch in painstaking detail. Soon, they’re the parents of three children. Two are reduced to cliches because Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) is the only child who matters to the story. His much smaller stature than his siblings make him unsuitable for most farm work and his crippling fear of everything makes everything else a problem, too.
It’s not surprising that Arlo’s father’s lectures on how not to be afraid don’t help him or that it goes The Lion King route, leaving Arlo without his father. There is almost nothing surprising in this film at all. It’s that predictable. After what feels like an eternity, Arlo befriends Spot and the actual plot starts happening…or what seemed to be the actual plot except it’s meandering. At one point, Arlo and Spot eat bad berries and trip on them. The results are in the film.
Perhaps the film could be a loose adaptation of On the Road by Jack Kerouac but then, an adult comes along with another platitude about conquering fear and any essence of fun is sucked right out.
Then, there’s Spot who is a paleolithic human. Because dinosaurs survived and evolved into groups of hunters and gatherers, humans have evolved into creatures similar to dogs or wolves. They are intelligent, can fend for themselves including tools and form packs but they have no speech understood by dinosaurs so dinosaurs find them inferior and treat them like vermin.
On one hand, it is a little interesting to have the tables turned so that man isn’t the dominant species similar to Planet of the Apes. However, it becomes a little disturbing. Even though Spot has more survival skills, Arlo takes ownership of Spot, including naming him. At one point, he even deems fit to make him stay with other humans even though they were not related. This is presented as a good thing and similar to White Fang being released in the wild rather than making sure on a longterm basis that it’s the right family for Spot. Then again, it’s also sad that Arlo’s family didn’t truly accept him until after losing him and having him return. Shouldn’t they have been a little more compassionate? With family like that, Arlo’s cold demeanor towards Spot makes even more sense.
Of course, being Pixar, the artistry of the animation is exquisite. This is the best part of the film. Nature looks the same as a PBS special just with weird creatures walking through it. The actual characters look like they could be in The Flintstones. Was it an homage to Gertie? Was it simply because the characters were rushed after the film was scrapped and redone late in production? There are villains in the film but they are instantly forgettable. Spot is the exception to the character design. He’s designed to be cute like if someone used a machine to turn Zac Efron into a kindergärtner. When a film manages to make dinosaurs boring, it’s failed.
The worst part about The Good Dinosaur‘s failure is that fewer people will see the short before it, Sanjay’s Super Team. In just seven minutes, it had heart, humor and Hindu gods kicking ass in a fresh visual style. This was better than a lot of full length feature films released this year, including The Good Dinosaur.