Someone recently lent me this, saying it was, and I quote, ‘a bit weird’. It certainly was.
The Good Dinosaur comes billed as the most beautiful film Pixar has ever made, and there is no denying that it looks gorgeous. Exquisite scenery, some of it so well animated you’re hard-pressed to believe it’s not cine-photography. The water in particular looks … er, watery. The mountains look as though they might have been borrowed from Peter Jackson’s extended hymn to New Zealand, although later it becomes fairly obvious that the story is using American settings (and indeed, the film’s Wikipedia entry lists a number of them, though not Monument Valley which was also clearly visible). After that come fumaroles, boiling mud pots, geysers. There were moments when I was strongly reminded of my own geological travels down the western seaboard of the USA. And that’s still not all. The realisation of the trees, plants, incidental birds, insects and small mammals is just awesome. For those old enough to remember how revolutionary the film of Watership Down was in its day, it’s the 2015 equivalent of that opening sequence showing the field of broad beans.
Except that when the animators on that film introduced the main protagonists – the rabbits – they mostly still looked like rabbits. Yes, they had been slightly humanised but they were still recognisably rabbits. For The Good Dinosaur, we unsurprisingly have dinosaurs, but if you’re imagining slightly humanised Jurassic-style dinosaurs, you will be sadly disappointed. The Good Dinosaur might feature dinosaur shapes – apatosaurus, tyrannosaurus rex, pteranodon, a styracosaurus (like a triceratops but with more horns), and some velociraptors – but that is pretty much where it begins and ends. In some ways, this is inevitable. We’re dealing with Pixar, and they have a certain way of doing things. Their dinosaurs are to real dinosaurs as their character Sadness is to me, i.e. not very. There is a conceptual relationship of sorts but only of sorts. So, in the case of Arlo, the good dinosaur of the title, he might look like an apatosaurus, but his skin is cartoon-frog green, only lightly patterned, and very polished, plastic almost, while his facial expressions betray the technical director’s previous involvement with things like Monsters University, which is similarly marked by highly polished, plastic-looking characters. Or, as I couldn’t help thinking, it was as though Wallace and Gromit had been transformed into one dinosaur. Those teeth! That faintly worried expression. One half-expected someone to say ‘cracking corn, Arlo’. It might have improved things slightly if they had. The tyrannosaurus rex fared slightly better in that they were allowed to be craggy, but this was because they were ranchers rather than farmers (we’ll get to that in a moment – it’s going to be a good moment).
I acknowledge that I am being slightly unreasonable by expecting any verité from what is, after all, intended to be morally uplifting entertainment. One might justify this by pointing out that the plot is not remotely realistic, so why should the dinosaurs be? It’s a fair point, but nonetheless, I would contend that if you’re going to go to all the trouble of producing such realistic animation for the landscapes, you might also want to go to a little more trouble with your main characters. Alas, Pixar did not. The dinosaurs look as though they have been parachuted into an exquisite landscape by an over-zealous toy manufacturer, which is probably not so far from the truth. This is a Walt Disney film, after all. We’re not dealing with an indy film-maker, but an arm of a multi-million-dollar enterprise with a very particular view of the world it wants to push.
Now for the story. Its initial premise is alluring. Dinosaurs were not wiped out by a meteor collision. There was no K-T extinction event, just a bright light briefly zipping through the sky. Hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of years go by and dinosaurs remain on the earth. Except, somewhere along the way they have upped their evolution game and acquired the trappings of what we might consider civilisation. That is, the vegetarian apatosauruses have become farmers, growing and harvesting maize, which they then store in rock-built silos. This enables some amusing shots of apatosauruses ploughing the ground with their snouts, and using their long necks as a way of spraying water across their fields, raising probably enough corn to keep one apatosaurus in light snacks for a winter’s day, or at any rate to feed their chickens. What they subsist on the rest of the time remains unclear. Later, we will see that the tyrannosaurus rex are raising what they call ‘longhorns’, bison with enormous auroch-like horns, and herding them on the plains (though I couldn’t help noting that no mention was made of why they might be herding them, i.e. for food – the script was too busy being amused at portraying T.rex as a goodie). And everyone lives happily side by distant side (lacking only a chorus of ‘The Farmer and the Cowman Should be Friends’).
This is a nonsensical model of sustainability, of course, but it isn’t intended to be believable so much as to reinforce a sense that life would have always turned out this way in the United States, be it with humans or dinosaurs. Manifest dinosaur destiny, if you like. Or, a failure of imagination, if you prefer. Either way, this is going to be a film about good old-fashioned white American values, played out in an alternative Big Country, and sure enough, much of the early part of the film focuses on Arlo, the runt of the dinosaur litter, struggling to find some way of ‘making his mark’ on the world – literally, in this case, as it involves making a muddy dinosaur footprint on the corn silo, which is pretty much at the centre of this story. Arlo is a small dinosaur, frightened of everything, in awe of his father, and determined to make him proud. When Henry, his father, puts him to guarding the silo and find out who is stealing their corn, Arlo sets to with a will, catching the miscreant, who turns out to be a very small boy, at which point Arlo baulks at killing another creature and the boy escapes. Henry insists that they track the boy and so they head off up-river as the clouds gather, a storm breaks and the father is swept away in a flash flood. Cue shot of gravestone, at which point I was seriously in WTF territory.
And cue shots of clouds. When in doubt, show some clouds. There are lots of clouds in this film, to the extent that they almost become characters in their collective right. The reason for this is apparently that the film-makers have developed a new technique for making Volumetric Clouds, that is, clouds that actually look like clouds (to the extent that the credits feature a whole section on the people who worked on the Volumetric Clouds).This is perhaps a clue to what is really going on with this film, but first, back to the plot. The apatosaurus family struggles on, trying to get the harvest in – these are homesteading dinosaurs with no near neighbours, obviously – but when Arlo discovers that the small boy is back, he chases after him, falls in the river, and floats way off downstream. Once he has recovered from this mishap he determines that he must go home, and he knows that the best way to do this is to follow the river upstream. Astonishingly, considering how many miles Arlo must have travelled in the water, considering how long it takes him to get back, the small boy is still there, and given that Arlo is utterly useless in the wild, the small boy starts to look after him.
The small boy is represented in the soundtrack by what I would characterise as pseudo-native flute music, so one might argue that he is taking up the role of the Good Indian, but the chronology is complicated here if we assume that such evolution as has occurred (and it frankly doesn’t look like that much has, other than the plasticisation of the dinosaurs and their taking up farming as a marker of civilisation) still places humans as having come after the dinosaurs. On the other hand, there are clear views about who owns what in terms of land and produce, and the small human boy is initially regarded as vermin by the apatosauruses, so who knows. It doesn’t get much better when Arlo calls the boy Spot, pushing him into the oh-so-amusing role of pet dog (he even howls like a wolf). And yes, we are supposed to understand that Spot is far cleverer than Arlo when it comes to survival, though it’s uncertain whether we should read that as a foreshadowing of the delayed but inevitable rise of humans.
Arlo and Spot make a picaresque journey through the mid-West, trying to get home, and along the way they meet all sorts of western film tropes, as well as other creatures, including the bizarre styracosaurus who prompted Arlo to call the boy Spot, after a competition to see which of them would keep him; and a small flock of pteranodons, whom Arlo mistakes for rescuers after a storm, but who are quartering the ground for displaced creatures to eat. This is possibly the most realistic moment in the film, but for the sake of the story the pteranodons become the villains of the piece.
Arlo and Spot are rescued from this confrontation by a family of cow-punching tyrannosaurus rex, and Arlo and Spot in turn help them find their herd of longhorns, which are being rustled by velociraptors. It belatedly occurs to me that the pteranodons and velociraptors are rather more accurately represented in their appearance and behaviour than the good characters (though admittedly this is for values of accuracy that apply only to this film).
So, finally, Arlo is almost home but has to stop and rescue Spot from the vengeful pteranodons one last time, to underline the fact that they are friends, equals, etc. (though not before he has a confrontation with the ghost of his father and makes his own choice about what to do). At this point a set of slightly better dressed humans (they have furs, and are possibly refugees from the Frozen kingdom) rock up and Spot finds himself torn between them and Arlo, until Arlo picks up an earlier theme of family and sends Spot away with them. Here family is clearly designated as ‘people who look like you’ rather than creatures with whom you have formed a bond, and we can doubtless rest assured they will teach Spot better manners and better dress sense. And if you’re thinking this seems rather like the end of Disney’s original The Jungle Book, you would be justified in thinking that, : there are a few other resonances as well, not least the similarities between the crows and the pteranodons.
But after all this Arlo has come home, and finally gets to make his muddy mark on the silo. And that’s it. This entire 90 minutes of ‘did they really just do what I thought they did?’ is predicated on Arlo’s now being enough of a dinosaur to be able to mark his muddy footprint on a rock. Ninety overly-moralised minutes of my life I won’t get back again.
My initial theory, going back to the Volumetric Clouds, was that The Good Dinosaur is actually a show reel for the animators, and having read a few bits and pieces about the struggles to get the film made, I’m inclined to stick with that idea, especially as the ‘struggles’ seem to centre on the actual story … the need to find one. To me, the most successful moments of the film are when Spot and Arlo aren’t really doing anything except bouncing joyously through the landscape, a dinosaur and his boy, playing together. The scene in the prairie dog town, as they blow the prairie dogs out of their holes, is genuinely hilarious, while the encounters with fireflies are moments of wonder and beauty. But the moment the film turns to anything serious, the heavy hand of good old-fashioned Disney morality descends and the whole thing buckles and collapses under the weight of noble but misguided intention. This film may have exquisite background visuals, but it has very little else, and I am disappointed in Pixar. Admittedly, I don’t think they always get it right (Inside Out, to me, has similar problems with its story though I know many people adore it, and Up is two films bolted together, one of them tiny and exquisite, the other overly long and crudely executed) but generally they do better than this. I love the Toy Story series, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc and especially The Incredibles. And the difference in each case is that the film has a story. Maybe they had a story first. I remain suspicious that The Good Dinosaur was nothing more than those Volumetric Clouds and all that beautifully animated water looking for a place to disport themselves.
Compare The Good Dinosaur with something like Zootropolis, which I’ve also seen recently, and it’s clear that it doesn’t matter how much great animation you have, and how many good sight gags you include, without a strong story (and Zootropolis has a very strong story indeed), you’re lost before you start. Zootropolis and The Good Dinosaur are working in similar territory, with rampant anthropomorphism and a life-affirming tale of surmounting the odds, but the script for Zootropolis has wit and verve, while the script for The Good Dinosaur limps along, rather as its main character does at various points.