Review: The Good Dinosaur

“A pony!”

It’s not a pony.

“A pony!”

It’s not a fucking pony.

“A green pony, mummy!”

It’s not a fucking pony. It’s a dinosaur. I know you’re all of about five, but seriously. You came to see a film about dinosaurs. Called The Good Dinosaur. Get passed the pony idea. How about quietly interacting with your child, mother, and telling her it’s a dinosaur? No? Okay. Fine. I get kicked in the back again. The goliath sitting in front of me built like a lumbering advert for protein shakes scoops up his two children (both under four and who haven’t the slightest interest in the film) to stop them from squabbling and now I literally can’t see anything but their ungainly, three-headed silhouette. Like some improbable monster from a Harry fucking Potter film. I slump to the side as I’m kicked in the back again, craning for an unobstructed view down the aisle. I’m nearly given a concussion by another parent charging down the tiered rows in the fleeting hope that the child he’s dragging doesn’t piss himself before he can get him out and to the toilet. Elsewhere in the maximum capacity auditorium a game of pat-a-cake is happening. Another kid starts screaming somewhere.

“A pony, mummy.”

Sigh.

I brought this on myself. I admit that. I had an idea what to expect and man, I wasn’t disappointed. As I’m not paid to maintain this site or do these reviews, as I choose to review films because I enjoy it, I’m not privy to the studied quietude of a press screening. Where the audience might have a vested interest in seeing the film in question. So I saw Disney Pixar’s latest offering, The Good Dinosaur, just like everyone else; at a commercial cinema with all the chaos that comes with it (I’ll get to the film in a minute).

Okay, picking an afternoon showing on a Sunday perhaps wasn’t the greatest idea in hindsight, but I have a day job, a 9 to 5 (roughly), so I’d like to take a moment to plead with multiplex cinema chains to consider again the viability of adult-only screenings being returned to the roster of options.  These films have broad appeal. They’re beloved of children and adults alike. Some of the adults might want to pay attention. I don’t think I can take another farce like the one I experienced today.

Anyway.

Hot on the heels of the studio’s high-water-mark Inside Out  comes this decidedly more straight-forward adventure, directed by Peter Sohn making his feature debut. The opening, 65 million years ago, sets us to a different timeline, one in which the dinosaurs weren’t wiped out by an asteroid colliding with the Earth, and instead had the opportunity to thrive and evolve. They can talk. And, erm, farm. Flash-forward a few millennia and we’re introduced to a family of herbivores. Momma (Frances McDormand) and Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) watch expectantly as their young hatch. The littlest of these, Arlo (voiced in the main by Raymond Ochoa) will be the focus of the film as he is whisked away from his nearest and dearest by the tumultuous rapids of a nearby river. The Good Dinosaur is the story of his journey home.

Why initiate things this way? Why the time-changing prelude? To bring dinosaurs and man into contact, of course. Something Hollywood has a habit of going to great lengths to achieve. Arlo’s predicament is largely caused by a skittering, primitive little homo sapien whom he names Spot (Jack Bright). Spot refuses to leave him alone. Arlo is at first exasperated by the incessant appearance of this unsupervised child (I know how he felt), but over the course of their adventure together a bond grows, one that is threatened by a pack of fiendish pterodactyls.

And that’s pretty much your movie. One wonders, following the incredible ambition and reach of the more introspective Inside Out, whether this wasn’t a concerted effort from Pixar to balance the scales a little. Offer up something a little more basic, a little more classic. It’s a fine attempt. The Good Dinosaur does little but follow its own path briskly from point A to point B. The developmental lessons that usually pepper their movies are there, but they’re pushed only gently this time. This is feel-good, child-friendly and rather disposable entertainment first and foremost, with only some earnest (and welcome) insights into the importance of grieving thrown in to suggest a greater motive at play.

Arlo is a likable if fairly plainly sketched hero, but one we’re fully able to cheer for. His journey isn’t all that spectacular (an interlude with a trio of tyrannosauruses could arguably have been removed completely; though it affords the film one of two smart references to, of all things, Jaws). Rather cutely, Spot’s behaviour is more like that of a rascal pet than a person, acting mainly on instinct he provides a healthy smattering of comedic moments.

If the story is slight, then the animation is the real draw here. The photo-realism of The Good Dinosaur is simply incredible, marking it out as Pixar’s most visually impressive film to date. And it’s not like they haven’t been trying. From the water effects of the rushing river to the details in the forest floors, rocks and grasslands, the accomplishment here is significant.  If anything it butts up against the comparatively simplistic character designs, which occasionally feel a little crude by comparison. But make no mistake, if there’s a reason to see The Good Dinosaur, it’s for the evolutionary leap forward in mimicking the natural world around us.

So there’s a bit of a conundrum here. A visual feast tethered to one of the studio’s most lightweight adventures. The Good Dinosaur is just that; good. It’s a playful, slightly twee little B-side when set beside the studio’s more significant commercial and critical hit of a few months ago. But that shouldn’t mean the technical achievements here ought to go unnoticed. If they can marry this to some material of equal ambition, the results could be incredible.

Just remind me not to see that film on a Sunday afternoon.

Score: 3

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