The Good Dinosaur, the latest animated flick from Pixar and Disney, is such a confused mess that I cannot even figure out what the title is supposed to mean. Clearly it refers to the movie’s putative hero, Arlo the vaguely apatosaurus-esque giant lizard, but in what sense is he “good”? It’s not like there are lots of evil dinos around for him to distinguish himself from. (There are barely any other dinosaurs at all, which is really weird.) It’s not like he was naughty and learns how to behave in the polite way that all decent dinos behave. The title is not disparaging or sarcastic, although a “good dinosaur” who was like a “good German” would have made for a far more intriguing film than we got here.
I am truly flummoxed.
I am truly flummoxed by the scientific spin that The Good Dinosaur wants to put on its Flintstones setting, which has dinosaurs and humans existing simultaneously. It posits, in its opening moments, that that big asteroid 65 million years ago missed planet Earth and so did not wipe out the terrible lizards. But humans — and other large mammalia, such as the longhorn cattle that bizarrely show up later — wouldn’t have evolved if the dinosaurs hadn’t gone extinct. And yet the five credited screenwriters — including including Meg LeFauve (Inside Out) and Bob Peterson (Up, Finding Nemo) — can find no narrative or thematic justification for their impossible scenario: Arlo the vaguely apatosaurus-esque giant lizard isn’t even “good” in the sense that he is an adequate representation of dinosaur-ness. He could easily be, I dunno, say, a bear. Arlo could easily be a human boy, and it wouldn’t make a single iota of difference to the story. Yes, this is fantasy, but it is fantasy that doesn’t know what to do with itself.
Arlo’s shamefully banal, might-as-well-be-human story is all about how runty adolescent Arlo (the voice of Raymond Ochoa: Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Monsters University) has to “make his mark” on the world by doing something useful, which in his case requires that he overcome his cowardice and paralyzing fear of just about everything, from bugs to chickens to lightning. He will achieve this by having an accidental adventure when he is swept away from his family’s farm — yes, the dinosaurs have agriculture* — along a raging river and ends up far from home and very lost. As he struggles to find his way back, he adopts Spot (the voice of Jack Bright: Monsters University), a human toddler fending for himself in the wilderness (also an absurdity). At first I thought Spot — so named by Arlo, because the human doesn’t actually speak, just grunts and howls — was meant to be a feral anomaly. But later we see that all humans are wild and language-less: the homo sapiens are the animals in this world, and the dinos are the people.
I think this is meant to be charming, but it’s rather unpleasant. Even apart from how it makes no scientific sense at all.
(*I am flummoxed by how creatures with no opposable thumbs have managed to develop technology. The film tries to make some concessions to this, such as by having Arlo’s family “plough” their fields with their heads. But who made the rope they use for some chores? It’s impossible for apatosaurs to have done this. Have the dinos enslaved humans to do fine handiwork for them? Maybe the title is analogous to “the good German” after all!)
I am further truly flummoxed by the decision of director Peter Sohn — a Pixar animator making his directorial debut — to paint gorgeously lifelike landscapes for Arlo to journey across while rendering Arlo himself in a simplistically cartoonish way. The animated mountains and rivers and forests and grasslands are breathtakingly stunning, touchably real, and completely indistinguishable from filmed nature. Even Spot, while somewhat stylized, is a plausible approximation of a human being. Arlo, on the other hand, looks like an inflatable plastic pool toy.
The Good Dinosaur is certainly not suitable for grownup fans of animation — this is almost a slap in the face to such fans after Pixar’s earlier triumph this year with Inside Out, which is thematically, narratively, and visually one of the richest animated movies ever made. But I’m not even sure this is suitable for children: there are moments of casual violence that I can imagine would set off screams of terror in small tykes. (Example: a big colorful bug gets its head pulled off, revealing squishily organic guts and cutting short its lively squirming. This pretty creature gets killed dead as a joke.)
Perhaps the most effective smack to The Good Dinosaur’s lack of imagination comes from the Pixar short that accompanies it. “Sanjay’s Super Team” is a lovely bit of dreamery in which a little boy envisions the Hindu gods his father is praying to as superheroes. It’s beautiful, funny, exciting, and unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. It sadly highlights how stagnant mainstream Hollywood ideas of fantasy have become.