For the past few years, one of the films that has made me the most apprehensive about its success was Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur. The idea sounded great but the behind the scenes turmoil with the film, including original director Bob Peterson being forced out and virtually the entire voice cast being replaced at the last minute. With that said though, the behind the scenes problems could be overlooked if the actual film was good and I have to say, it was. It’s not one of Pixar’s strongest films but it is still a brilliant film.
The film focuses on a world in which the meteor that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs never hit the Earth, resulting in their survival. Millions of years after the miss we see a family of Apatosaur farmers trying to gather enough food for winter and having to deal with a human child who’s been stealing the food. After attempting to capture the human one time the dad of the family and his youngest son Arlo get caught in a storm leading to the dad’s death. The next time the human appears, Arlo chases him away but ends up getting knocked into a river and swept downstream. He ends up having to team up with the human, later named Spot, to get back to his family. The overall tone for the film is something that hasn’t really been sold in the trailers. The trailers give it the impression of being more of an adventure and, whilst that is the case for the most part, the overall tone of the film is more akin to a Western, in a True Grit/Slow West kind of way (there’s one scene that reminds me a lot of the Bear Guy scene from True Grit). Now I didn’t originally know I wanted to see a Western starring dinosaurs but now I’ve seen it, I want to see more. Scenes of dinosaurs rustling cattle, telling stories about their scars around a campfire, hillbilly velociraptors and dinosaur farming are incredibly engaging to watch and this creates a great world for the film as a whole. However, some parts of this world I want to see more of, mainly a cult of pterodactyls devoted to a storm. The scenes with them in are brilliantly dark, I just wish we’d seen more of them.
The film also does a great job building the relationship between Arlo and Spot, their relationship developing in a way that feels really natural, from enemies to firm friends, the animation doing a lot to help this through Spot having no dialogue in the film, only a series of growls and howls. This is especially seen in discussions regarding families between the two, the animation and the symbolism of the circle being especially strong with this coming to the forefront at the end of the film, creating the best scene in the film. The film also has a good message regarding fear and the need to embrace the fears you have. It states that you cannot and should not run away from your fears and that it’s a good thing to be scared as it helps give you the courage you need to do the best thing possible.
The voice acting meanwhile continues the strong trend from Pixar. As Arlo, Raymond Orcha does a great job, mixing in the fear that Arlo has, the love for his family, the determination to return home and his growing courage when faced with everything around him really well. Another really strong performance comes from Jeffrey Wright as Arlo’s dad. Originally the character was meant to be voiced by John Lithgow and this is one of the replacement decisions that was the right call. Wright brings a sternness to the character than works wonders considering his role as a farmer needing to provide for his family but there’s also this warmth to the character showing a deep love for his family and his care for Arlo, making his scenes in the film work really well. Sam Elliott meanwhile adds to the Western atmosphere of the film as the leader of a family of T-Rex cattle farmers, his distinctive voice adding to the whole atmosphere of the film and creating some great imagery in your mind. Steve Zahn meanwhile, whilst not used as much as I’d have liked, brings a great deal of menace to Thunderclap, the leader of the cult of pterodactyls, showing the fanatical nature of the character brilliantly and the really twisted nature of him and his cult. Good work in small roles is also done by Frances McDormand, Anna Paquin, Peter Sohn and A.J. Buckley, all of their performances adding to the overall atmosphere of the film.
One thing that cannot be disputed about the film is that the animation quality is some of Pixar’s best, mainly with the backgrounds. The use of photorealistic animation for this is incredible, creating some of the most beautiful imagery ever put in a Pixar film. Originally, I thought that the more cartoonish style of the characters wouldn’t mesh well with the photorealistic backgrounds but I have to say that’s not the case, I found it to be a great balance between the two. It also helps that the animation for the movements of the characters is excellent, effectively showing how dinosaurs would adapt to become farmers and cattle herders. The animation also does a great job showing physical pain for the characters, the bruises and scars on Arlo as he gets injured looking incredibly painful. I also have to give heavy praise to the animation in scenes without dialogue, these scenes being some of the most touching in the film, continuing to show that Pixar are the modern masters of silent cinema.
Overall, whilst The Good Dinosaur is not one of Pixar’s best, I do think the reception it has received has been a bit too negative. Sure there are some story points I wish were developed more but the overall feel of the film is something I really got absorbed into, the animation is some of Pixar’s best, the story is really compelling, the acting is strong and the world of dinosaurs in a Western environment in amazing to see. Sure in terms of Pixar films this year Inside Out is better but this is still an excellent film.
My Rating: 5/5