Good Dinosaur, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/27/15 07:49:38
I'm not sure at what point during "The Good Dinosaur" I started leaning forward, eagerly anticipating whatever was going to appear on screen next, but it happened, and by the end, I was as delighted with this movie as any I'd seen all year. It's a rare combination of visually stunning, creative, and surprisingly heartfelt. Given that those are words that could also be used to describe Pixar's other exceptional film this year ("Inside Out"), it almost seems like an insufficient description. This movie delighted me, pure and simple.It posits a world where no mass extinction occurred 65 million years ago, and given a few million more years, dinosaurs were able to evolve into a variety of intelligent species including a pair of brontosauri (vocied by Jeffrey Wright & Frances McDormand) whose farm soon welcomes three hatchlings. Libby & Buck are high-spirited, but Arlo (voice of Raymond Ochoa) is timid, and even backs down when charged with stopping the proto-human "critter" making off with their grain. It leads to a pair of calamitous events at the nearby river, with Arlo and the critter he eventually names "Spot" (voice of Jack Bright) swept far downstream with the frightened Arlo facing a long walk home.
It's odd that there has been little talk of the Disney company's year-2000 release Dinosaur as this movie approached release; not only do both feature young dinos of similar varieties on an incredible journey through real or extraordinarily realistic environments, but both had fairly tortured production histories on the way there. Pixar has, of course, earned a fair amount of trust with its original productions and in that case the trust is warranted, even though the script certainly shows signs of having gone through many hands - from original director Bob Peterson to another four people with story credit (including eventual director Peter Sohn) to screenwriter Meg LaFauve. This isn't always a bad thing - although there are a few run-of-the-mill moments, there are also some decidedly odd ones, and LaFauve and Sohn are mostly able to connect the work of all these different voices into something that runs fairly smoothly from start to finish.
As good as the script winds up being, it is what's on-screen that captures the audience's attention first, and well it should. The environments created could easily be mistaken for live-action, to the point where one almost wonders why one would bother; surely it must be less expensive, time-consuming, and difficult to actually shoot a field or a river than to render one in such detail. It's impressive anyway, although perhaps the more surprising accomplishment is how well the more obviously animated characters fit in. The designs for Arlo, Spot, and the rest are obviously the work of talented cartoonists, with big eyes and streamlined shapes, but the textures and coloring used are so perfectly chosen that they almost never clash with the realism around them; they're imaginative and friendly but solid, never seeming too smooth or like the result of advanced fur-simulation algorithms. I suspect that just a little variance in one direction or the other would have made the film an uncanny-valley disaster, but that does not happen.
Thankfully, realism is not the only goal - even as The Good Dinosaur is as impressive a tech demo as you'll see, there's also a delightful amount of creativity on display. Little details seem well thought-out - the dinos are intelligent, but not technological in the same way humans are, since they can solve a lot of problems with brute force - and there is often great whimsy to the characters Arlo and Spot meet on their trip home: Whoever came up with a cattle-herding family of T. Rexes with the patriarch voiced by Sam Elliott deserves a particularly generous year-end bonus. There are visual bits I don't want to spoil because the discovery is too delightful on its own, especially as Arlo's well-founded fears of storms and the dangers they bring manifest - scary as they are, they earned gasps of delight. There are other neat visual tricks, too, like how flashbacks can take the same image and change the lighting and color scheme, much more difficult to do in live action. Sohn and company make great use of their technology.
(It is also worth noting that this is easily Pixar's best use of 3D in a feature since they started releasing films that way. I suspect it's not just because they planned it from the outset, but because this sometimes has a lot more in common with the high-concept shorts they produce than their other features more packed with characters do. It's worth adding a couple bucks to the ticket price.)
Pixar has grown more daring with their success, and The Good Dinosaur continues that, pushing the borders of what one might expect from a family movie even with Inside Out fresh in audience's minds. The world Arlo finds himself walking through is a dangerous place, not just in terms of carnivorous megafauna but with threats to one's sanity, although it's never heavy-handed or overly scary. There's an impressive diversity among the intelligent dinosaurs - the brontos and the rexes have different enough cultures that Arlo is believably shaken, but it doesn't necessarily lead to conflict. It builds quietly to one of the more understated but genuinely emotional finales that Pixar has delivered, quietly melting the viewer with one or two words and all that they imply.As much as I loved the film, I was a bit worried at the end - my immediate fondness came in large part from its creativity and willingness to do unusual things; would that play for the kids in the audience? Thankfully, it did, even garnering a round of applause as the credits rolled. I doubt that the seven-year-olds behind me consciously loved the same things I did in the same way, but that is perhaps just another indicator of the film's excellence - it has a lot to offer a great many people.
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