Film Review: The Good Dinosaur (PG) (USA, 2015)

There was a time when we would only get a new Pixar movie every few years. Now, for the first time ever, we’re getting three in a 12 month period. This started with the box office smash Inside Out earlier this year and will end with the most anticipated animated sequel since Toy Story 3Finding Dory – next June.

This week, the second film (Pixar’s 16th feature) in that roster will be released. The Good Dinosaur takes us to an alternate universe where Dinosaurs were never wiped out, and find themselves living alongside the earliest humans. The film tells the story of our titular character, Arlo – an Apatosaurus for those playing at home – who in the spirit of a story like “The Ugly Duckling” or Disney’s classic Dumbo, isn’t exactly the pick of the litter.

Born smaller and weaker than his siblings, Arlo is the runt of his family. He also seems to have been born with a fear of just about everything. But he’s desperate to make his family proud, accept his responsibility and make his mark – both figuratively and literally, signified by a mud foot-print on the family’s corn silo. Something which Arlo has yet to earn.

What follows is an amalgamation of some classic Disney and even Pixar stories. Dumbo is the easy character reference, while The Lion King is ever present in the first quarter of the film (and some characters who will remind you of the Hyenas are present throughout). When Arlo gets lost and has to start finding his way home, we also see elements of Finding Nemo and even Toy Story poke their head in. And herein lies a lot of the problem the film faces: it struggles to find an original voice. And strangely, it seems to rebel against it, keeping some of its best moments and most original characters to the sideline.

The majority of the film finds Arlo lost, scared and struggling to find his way home. In this journey he meets Spot, a Neanderthal boy with whom he blames for a lot of his problems. And there are a lot of them. For a character who is already established as being weaker than his siblings, Director Peter Sohn and the storytellers any Pixar make sure to really bring this poor character to breaking point. They leave him bruised, battered, and make sure he has as many obstacles in his path as possible. In truth, and for lack of a better word, it comes off as a bit mean – and from a death early in the film, to the punishment Arlo endures, I really think it’s going to scare the little ones. Which wasn’t necessary – not to this extent.

In the Lion King you have Timon and Pumbaa to lighten things up after the death of Simba’s father. In Finding Nemo you have characters like the Sea Turtles to keep the balance from the scarier characters in the film. We get the point – he needs to go through this to toughen himself up and gain his mark with his family – but any success would achieve just that. he’s working against the odds from the word go. Here, the poor character faces challenge after challenge, and the brief moments where we are given respite – be it in a more heartwarming moment between Arlo and Spot, or their encounters along the way – are just that. Short lived.

Take one of the two main encounters in the film, where we meet Forest Woodbush, a Styracosaurus who parades as something of a Shaman, living in the shadows, covered in “critters”. Voiced by the Director, this character steals the film, and showcases the creativity that Pixar are known for, while giving us the mix of humour and heart the film was struggling to find until that moment. But after the brief encounter, we never see him again. We also get to enjoy the scenes between Arlo and some Cowboys – who in this universe just so happen to be T-Rex’s – in the other main encounter of their journey. Again, the team get creative with the space they occupy, and the film shines. But outside of this, it struggles to find its voice, leading us down an unnecessarily dark path.

Amidst the storyline, however, is a film which may be the most beautiful CGI film ever put to screen. Sitting behind the cartoony characters is a landscape which looks photo real; Pixar likely using the delays caused by story development to produce their best looking film to date. And they know it. Shots of the stunning landscape pad out the film from start to finish. Perhaps they are supposed to be the cathartic moments. And nature really does play a massive role in this film – it is in effect the real villain in the film… and one of the harshest we’ve ever seen in a Pixar film. Though a trio of Velociraptors (one of whom voiced by Pixar mainstay John Ratzenberger) who are the “hyenas” I mentioned earlier, certainly play their part as well, especially towards the end of the film.

By its end, in spite of the often difficult journey we face as viewers, we do enjoy a sentimental ending that I’m sure will give plenty a tear or two (*shakes fist at Pixar*). But ultimately it’s hard not to walk away disappointed. If I’m going to be pessimistic, It feels as though the release is a contractual obligation from Pixar’s new(ish) overlords Disney rather than something they’re releasing because it’s up to standard. Reading its background this comes as little surprise – this is a Pixar movie that has been in something of a development hell for years. It was originally supposed to come out in 2013. It originally had a completely different cast – only Frances McDormand remains from the original production – and it really does beg the question, what was originally in the film? Why didn’t it work and how did they end up here, in the 14 months since Pete Sohn took over directorial responsibilities?

The Good Dinosaur is by no means a terrible film. Ultimately it’s a problem of the high bar set by its studio, whereby our expectations of originality and character development simply can’t be met by a film that sits as a mishmash of so many others. Not to mention that it ends up being quite repetitive and might be scary for the little ones. But if we take away the high bar set by Pixar, and compare it to the general population of animations out there, it’s a film that’s hard not to argue is better than most. Beautiful to look at, sentimental by its end and full of enough scenes of enjoyment to make it worth your while, The Good Dinosaur is a good film. Just not a great one.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Good Dinosaur screens with the short Sanjay’s Super Team in cinemas around Australia from Boxing Day. Select cinemas will open on Christmas Day for advance screenings.