Tuesday, April 12, 2016

"Good" Dinosaur? That's Overselling It.

Pixar has a long history of mostly outstanding movies, but they're new to the "more than one film a year" game. And it seems to me that they need some work at it. While last year's Inside Out was a triumph at (or even beyond) the level of some of the studio's best ever efforts, their other 2015 film, The Good Dinosaur... was not.

A number of confounding decisions went into the making of The Good Dinosaur, starting right from the premise introduced in the opening minute -- that this story is set in an alternate reality in which no meteor wiped out the dinosaurs, and they went on to begin a simple, agrarian society. It's a wholly unnecessary explanation for why the dinosaurs we meet are a family of farmers -- Why are the toys of Toy Story sentient? Where did Carl Fredricksen get all those balloons? Who cares? It's emblematic of a movie that allocates too much attention to the wrong things.

Take the look of the film itself. The scenery is the best Pixar has ever achieved. The story is set in an environment that's part Yellowstone, part southwest desert, and it's so realistic at times that it looks like actual footage of an actual place. The textures of the trees, the water, the grass, the crops -- they're jaw-droppingly amazing. And unfortunately, they're distractingly so, as the characters placed in those environments are among the most hyper-stylized Pixar has ever produced. I'm not asking for the studio to terrify children with realistic dinosaurs, but this collection of characters is so cartoonish that the result feels like Roger Rabbit -- though less convincing in how it places the animated characters into the environments.

Then there's the story. The overall tale feels like stew of ideas that Pixar has already turned into powerful and effective movies. Achieving emotion with minimal dialogue was done masterfully in WALL-E. The tale of a lost child trying to get back home was told superbly in Finding Nemo (which itself is soon to be revisited in a sequel). Plus, once your mind starts down the path of feeling like you've seen this before, you can't help but make superficial comparisons to the Ice Age series too.

To be fair, there are some scenes peppered throughout the film that tug effectively at the heartstrings. Most of them involve a dog-like caveboy named Spot, a real triumph of character animation. Other good moments are realized through inspired casting. Sam Elliott's role as a brusque Tyrannosaurus named Butch feels like one of the all-time great matches of voice to animated character. Jeffrey Wright, Anna Paquin, and Steve Zahn also make an impression in their rather brief screen time.

The Good Dinosaur isn't outright bad; it's still an animated movie from a group of people that aspire to more than keeping kids quiet and still for 90 minutes. But unfortunately, it's still among Pixar's worst efforts. I give it a C.

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