Director: Peter Sohn
Writers: Story by Peter Sohn, Erik Benson, Meg LeFauve, Kelsey Mann & Bob Peterson; Screenplay by Meg LeFauve
Stars: Raymond Ochoa, Jeffery Wright, Steve Zahn, AJ Buckley, Anna Paquin, Sam Elliott, Frances McDormand, Marcus Scribner, Jack Bright
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy, Sci-fi/Fantasy
Rating: PG (for peril, action and thematic elements)
PIXAR delivers another imaginative tale for children and adults, this time with a prehistoric setting, showing us two youngsters, a dinosaur and a Neanderthal, who must stick together in a memorable journey.
For any that eagerly anticipate each new PIXAR film, the title The Good Dinosaur should be familiar. Originally scheduled to release Thanksgiving of 2013 with a voice cast including Lucas Neff, John Lithgow, Frances McDormand, Neil Patrick Harris, Judy Greer, and Bill Hader, you could say that it is two years late, but in that time, the film reportedly changed.
In the summer of 2013, months before release, the director and producer were removed from the film because of “story problems.” The following August, one of the original voice cast, John Lithgow, was quoted as saying the entire film had been dismantled and “completely reimagined.” In that reimagining, Frances McDormand was the only cast member kept through the changes. Whether the original cast or concept were indeed stronger is something we’ll never know, as all we know is the feature film as released. So, I’ve been cautiously optimistic for some time: cautious because of the production issues, but optimistic because it’s PIXAR…and DINOSAURS!
Did everything come together into a satisfying film?
In the Disney/PIXAR film, we find a dinosaur couple, working hard to tend to their riverside farm… I know what you may be thinking, but I did say that right. They’re farmers; no more of these herbivores roaming around for food, as they are beyond that. We see that they are expecting three to add to their family: Libby, the sassy female, Buck, the livewire, go-getter, and Arlo, the runt born and not quite sure on his feet, in a both literal and figurative way.
While in time, Libby and Buck “make their mark” with their contributions to the family farm, Arlo is ruled by a fear that keeps him from performing even the most basic of tasks. His father devises a way for him to finally conquer such things and be a part of the goings-on of the family’s livelihood. In this encounter, Arlo meets a small Neanderthal who will change his life forever.
Through a set of circumstances, Arlo, with Spot in tow, finds himself far, far away from his family with winter approaching. He knows he must find a way back to them, but in doing so, he must conquer his fears and journey forward. Along the way, he has many encounters from those who wish him ill and those who wish him well, and each helps him and Spot get closer and closer to where they need to be.
Violence/Scary Images: There are scenes of danger involving villainous dinosaurs biting, flinging, and injuring other dinosaurs. There is no blood in these scenes.
Language/Crude Humor: No language in particular, but for parents who really monitor language of any kind for their children, I did hear “dang” mentioned by one of the dinosaurs Arlo meets. Also, while nothing particularly crude, there is a short scene of Spot urinating that sounds more crude in writing it than is as actually shown on screen.
Sexual Content: None.
Drug/Alcohol References: When Arlo and Spot get into some fermented fruit, hallucinations and hilarity ensue. Children may ask questions about why that happened, so be prepared to give them an answer.
Spiritual Content: Nothing darkly spiritual in the film itself, but I would like parents to know that the Disney short preceding the film, “Sanjay’s Super Team,” uses the (mostly) true story of a PIXAR employee and his father and how the ideas of Hinduism and superheroes brought the two of them to a better understanding of each other. Nothing wrong with discussing other belief systems with your children, but the villain of the short is visually quite a sight for younger viewers.
Negative Content: None.
Positive Content: For children especially, the portrayal of friendship, trust, and understanding strongly come into play, as well as the ideas of family, sacrifice, and conquering our fears in order to do great things, all great messages for youth of today.
If this were made by any other animation studio, the expectations would be much lower, but being that this is PIXAR, movie-going audiences have established a high standard right off the bat from the company’s previous films. First off, I think it needs to be established that this movie is a western all the way down to its core.
Again, I said that right. Now, there is nary a cowboy hat or six-shooter to be seen, but the spirit of a western is here. You could replace Arlo and Spot with human children far from home, and the story would flow the same. Lawrence Kasdan, the famed screenwriter behind The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens, once said that any story worth telling in film could be told as a western, and here, we find another test for that idea.
Whether it’s the agrarian background of the parents, sweeping vista shots, the excellent soundtrack, the supporting character superbly voiced by Sam Elliott…well, that’s it then. Sam Elliott … We should have seen it coming. Some people have little love and appreciation for westerns as a genre; I am not of that category. I think that my love of westerns furthered my enjoyment of this film, and it helped me as an audience member come into this unique spin on dinosaurs with a sense of familiarity and connection that I would not have had otherwise.
It must be said how great the visuals are in the film. The backgrounds, especially, are near photo-realism for most of the film. This actually works to the film’s detriment slightly as the backgrounds look so real that the purposefully animated appearance of all the characters makes the transition slightly ajar between the two. I think I would have appreciated the animation more if the backgrounds were more stylized to fit the look of all the characters.
Arlo and Spot are quite the pair and they get into several instances that will have kids and adults amused. Voiced by child actors, we are allowed to see them grow as characters throughout the film, especially Arlo. I think that the choice to start over with child actors was a bold one, but it paid off. Recently, The Peanuts Movie (reviewed here by GUG) did this as well, even if it was a point of tradition for Peanuts to use child actors as voices, I see why filmmakers do it. Granted, a bad performance by a child actor can destroy the quality in some cases of the film as a whole, but in The Good Dinosaur, I think it all paid off.
There is no real villain of the film, which I’m noticing more and more with movies. Sure, there are dinosaurs trying to eat them that reoccur later in the film, but there are no real villains in the classic sense of carrying through all acts of the film. I thought it was nice, as it allows us to just live out the experience with Arlo and Spot. Their journey becomes our journey, and the film doesn’t seem interested in having that antagonist in a literal sense, even as Arlo works to break himself of fear’s hold on his life.
I have purposely tried to avoid real spoilers in this review, but I would like to say that the themes of conquering fear, unity through friendship and purpose, and love of family are all themes that should resonate greatly with us as Christians. Children especially need to see that fear isn’t something to eliminate; it’s something to overcome.
John Wayne, a legend of the Western genre, said “Courage is being scared to death…but saddling up anyway.” I don’t know what all went into the creation and brainstorming of The Good Dinosaur, but that quote came back to me while watching the film. As Christians, we are often victims of paralysis when it comes to sharing our faith. We know we should take the Truth to all we know and meet, but fears keep us from speaking, sharing, serving, helping, and doing. We must conquer those fears if we are to ever do for the Kingdom of Christ. For a child to see in this film that fear is natural, but beating it is a great message to learn early in life.
Also, the idea of people forming connections, regardless of obvious differences or histories, is something that children should learn from as well. Many of the greatest connections I’ve made in life were with people I never would have thought I would have. Keeping an open mind and heart will allow us to connect with people all over as the Lord leads people to us from all around. We must be open to friendship, regardless of how different someone may seem.
So, we have a full-film western made by PIXAR, a first for the animation studio, even though a talking cowboy toy helped put them on the map. How does it stack up with the rest of their filmography? That may be an unfair question to ask, as I believe every film should be judged on its own merits. Still, being PIXAR, people will inevitably do it.
I have no desire to quantify between it and the other films, but honestly, in the view of the rest of their filmography, I don’t see The Good Dinosaur being a classic in the vein of Toy Story (recently revisited by GUG for its 20th anniversary; review can be found here). Everyone has their preferences for their favorites; personally, I loved UP and WALL-E, whereas others didn’t connect with either of them as strongly.
Some households will be watching The Good Dinosaur on repeat when it hits video, I’m sure, but while it’s hard to say where and in what way, it felt lacking in ways that will make it transcend beyond just another cartoon in most people’s eyes. Granted, the emotional moments got to me, and they felt genuine. Still, I think that the production trouble shows that they were searching for something to make it a classic, and alas, they didn’t find it.
Even in not seeing it as a classic, I’m not condemning it. I believe that it is admirable to see that despite the production problems they faced in making it, the creators still managed to make a colorful, fun, funny, moving, and engaging story for the world to see, one I know I will be seeing again in my home. Something is missing though and keeping it from true greatness; I just can’t quite say what that is.
+ Photorealistic backgrounds + Unique spin on genre + Necessary message for kids and adults
- Disconnect between characters and scenery - May not be as relatable for some audiences - Missing that certain something of greatness
The Bottom Line
The Good Dinosaur, which has went through so much prior to release, is a unique film with a simple story that I feel will be enjoyed by most, but not loved and remembered over time like other PIXAR films.