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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

The Good Dinosaur movie review: bad dinosaur, bad

The Good Dinosaur red light

Shamefully banal, and such a confused mess that I cannot even figure out what the title is supposed to mean. Almost a slap in the face to Pixar fans after the triumph of Inside Out.
I’m “biast” (pro): big Pixar fan

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of The Good Dinosaur for its representation of girls and women.

red light 1.5 stars

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The Good Dinosaur (2015)
US/Can release: Nov 25 2015
UK/Ire release: Nov 27 2015

MPAA: rated PG for peril, action and thematic elements
BBFC: rated PG (mild threat, violence)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • RogerBW

    I’ve seen a lot of puff pieces about how Pixar used real-world terrain models and other cunning stuff to get the backgrounds absolutely right… and then the protagonist looks like a cheap plastic toy, presumably to help the company sell cheap plastic toys.

  • Nina

    Yowza, I’m seeing this with my Disney gal pal on Saturday…

  • Dan

    I presume most of those pieces are written by people who have inside access to the studio themselves are and just making assumptions up? Okay!

  • Hank Graham

    I come to praise Pixar, not to bury it.

    I’ve never seen a Pixar film I considered a total failure before. I didn’t much care for some of the Cars and Airplanes movies, but my nephew liked them.

    But this one is pretty much a total misfire. Kurt and Royce and I (the adults) didn’t like it, their boys didn’t like it, and the crowd in general (at a preview screening) seemed pretty subdued in their response to it. It wasn’t fun; it wasn’t good, and it wasn’t memorable.

    I’m put in mind of William Bayer’s comment, that films are so complicated to make, their problems so various and unpredictable, that failure, eventually, is almost inevitable.

    Pixar’s track record is such that a bust of this magnitude stands out like black from white. How on earth did it get through their usual, painstaking story review process? How did the studio that famously side-tracked a release they thought wasn’t working (at great difficulty and expense) let this one out the door?

    Whatever happened, I hope Pixar figures out that they missed, and wake up. We all know how good they can be.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I used to think it was impossible to make a bad movie about dinosaurs. But first Disney and now Pixar have proved me wrong. (Come to think of it, I wasn’t too impressed with Jurassic Park III either but that’s a subject for another thread.)

  • Aaron Jones

    I saw an early screening, and before then I wasn’t looking forward to the movie because I hated the character art, I thought it was just too simple and reminiscent of something like The Croods. I have to agree about the story, but yes, the landscapes created for the movie were absolutely incredible. Some of the best CGI rendering of the natural world I’ve yet seen is in service of the most pedestrian story one could imagine.

  • The fact that you lead with a rant about how you’re ‘flummoxed’ over the title of The Good Dinosaur speaks volumes. Not about the movie, however. So let me offer a bit of help… The ‘Good’ in the title refers to Arlo’s internal struggles and his journey to overcome his feelings of inferiority in comparison to his siblings in order to be the ‘good’ son and a ‘good’ member of his family that he so badly wants to be. That’s it. Let it sink in and maybe the light will go on. Maybe you were expecting a ‘bad’ villain in the story and that maybe threw you off about the title. To quote a character…”Don’t overthink it”

  • bronxbee

    my first thought on seeing the commercials and the sight of “arlo” was that he was a toy dinosaur of some kid, having adventures. sort of a calvin and hobbes thing… only hobbes looked “real” in calvin’s mind. (i remember being totally surprised after i had read a few strips that hobbes was a *stuffed* toy tiger… he wa such a vivid character i just assumed he was a real tiger). anyway, this review shows that the movie is much worse in dino representation than i’d thought. i wont be seeing it.

  • So you think Arlo is not “good” until the end of the movie?

    I’m not sure this is a “good” message to send to the kids who will make up most of the audience.

  • Didn’t say that. You’re still missing it… HE thinks he’s not good enough until the end of the movie.

  • Nina

    You’re obviously not familiar with any of the “Land Before Time” sequels, and that’s for the best.

  • Nina

    Personally, I started feeling pretty nervous about this one when it was announced that they changed the main cast really late into production.

  • RogerBW

    I’m thinking particularly of these pieces by Charlie Jane Anders at IO9 a few weeks back: http://io9.com/how-pixar-changed-all-the-rules-to-make-the-good-dinosa-1735364564 http://io9.com/how-pixar-rescued-the-good-dinosaur-from-creative-extin-1740125117
    She’s less critical than many, but she’s generally not a mindless cheerleader for the latest thing to be promoted.

  • Wow. Way to be a condescending asshat. I’m pretty sure MaryAnn understands subtext, and how to watch movies. She’s been doing it FOREVER.
    I’ll trust her opinion on this, that’s for sure.

  • This looked bad from the get go, which baffled me. I thought maybe it was only a sort of Pixar movie that Disney was pushing out under their moniker.
    Your review makes it sound even worse than I was expecting. Bummer.

  • Maybe she “understands subtext”. Could be. But she points out herself that the main theme of the movie totally escapes her.

  • natef

    Personally I applaud this movie. Appreciated Pixar going for a more lyrical, serious tone as opposed to their usual humor driven scripts. It felt almost like an extended short film in its simplicity and it saddens me that everyone wasn’t as entranced by this as I was. I feel like it’s one of Pixar’s most ambitious and unique efforts

  • If only they had spent as much time and attention to detail on the script as they did on the visuals.

  • Oh, I understand perfectly what you’re saying. I just don’t think it makes any sense.

  • Sorry, but you do NOT get to insult my integrity here. I do not review films that I have not seen. How could anyone even do that?

  • You thought this was *serious*? With all the slapstick? Really?

  • natef

    The only real slapstick I can think of was involving the raptors and it was done in an uninsistent manner. If you’re referring to Arlo falling down a lot, that was definitely not intended as slapstick. He sustains real, visceral injuries. In fact I thought that was one of the film’s bolder choices.

    And I wasn’t put off by his design at all

  • Apologies for the insult and condescension.

  • If you don’t think it makes sense, that’s fair enough. I’ll try to explain, at least in the way I saw it.. In the film, While he’s never directly referred to as a ‘bad dinosaur’, Arlo several times shows us how he himself feels inferior around the farm. His failures to ‘make his mark’ in a way that his parents and siblings do illustrate this clearly. Arlo’s entire character arc of self discovery (with help from other characters) throughout the film is about him growing his confidence, finding himself, and overcoming those inferior feelings so that he can make his mark and feel that he is a ‘good dinosaur’. The way this main theme is portrayed in the movie seems obvious (maybe too much so?) and makes total sense to me and I found it to be quite emotionally compelling.

  • To be fair, there were a few moments that could definitely be considered slapstick (the Arlo as a bridge on the cliff scene). But that’s OK, because slapstick is certainly present in ANY kids movie, including many Pixar classics. However, it was brilliant that TGD stayed away from allowing the slapstick moments to drive the story, but used it sparingly and only to provide some welcomed comic relief in what was otherwise a pretty serious and sometimes even somber movie.
    But I am totally in agreement with you in applauding this movie, Natef. I really appreciated that this Pixar took the time to give us a more lyrical, wondrous tone than what we’d typically expect. For me, it was a wonderful switch from the pummeling, ‘funny-quip-every-10-seconds’ dialogue that we’ve seen in too many recent ‘family’ films. (I’m looking at you Minions). Bravo to Pixar for the care and quality that went into this move, not just with the stunning visuals and out of the box world-building, but also with the heart that was put into the story and characters.

  • Nathan

    Loved those when I was a kid, I don’t really remember them though. I remembered Star Wars Episode 4 just fine.

  • Nathan

    Clearly you haven’t heard a “sparknotes” report before :) Nothing’s more hilarious than hearing a frazzled high-school student explain how Fahrenheit 541 is about a future where firemen aren’t allowed to read and one of them does and then get’s chased by a dog and then lives with some really smart hobos who also like books but don’t get chased by dogs and how 1984 was a really great book because it talked about how books are good and we should be allowed to read them… and stuff.

    Or the one guy who watched the LoTRs movies and decides he can fake a report on the books. Who’s Tom Bombadill? errr, yeah… that guy, now I remember… he was in the fir- the hobbit right? Oh well I read it awhile ago…

  • Nathan

    The B team must have worked on this while everyone else was on Inside Out.

  • Nina

    I’ll shamefully admit that I stuck with the franchise up until the 6th one.

  • As I said, I understand all this. And I still don’t see how it makes any sense. Arlo may overcome his cowardice, but his cowardice doesn’t make him “bad.” And how does Arlo “make his mark”? What has he done by the end of the film that is analogous to the ways his family members “made their marks”? How will his adventures have any impact on his family at all? We have no idea.

    And even if I were to buy everything you say, this does not make Arlo a good “dinosaur.” A good son, maybe. If Arlo were a homo sapiens instead of an apatosaur, wouldn’t you find it bizarre if the title of the film were “The Good Human”? For either film to justify its title, its protagonist would have to exemplify something unique to his species, or something that specifically impacts his entire species.

  • Nikstarr

    To be honest, this film took a big step as far as its portrayal of a difficult situation. First off it didn’t rely on dialogue to illustrate the character’s feelings. It believed that the children were smart enough to feel emotion through simple actions and gestures. Snow White did just this when it was released to children in the year 1937. It portrayed raw emotion through simple actions, words, music, and need I remind you it was also a kid’s movie. I understand that you may not understand the movie. However, this leads me to believe that while you may “never quite get it”, that on what grounds it would be any reason to keep your children from understanding. I spoke with a little girl in 3rd grade about it and you know what she told me “I was so happy that arlo made it home!”. That’s all. She nor any other children at the theater cried because it was scary. You know why? Because the majority of children who saw it weren’t sheltered from the world and had some idea that people get hurt, people die, and that scary things happen in life. So while your child among the others of people reviewing here may have thought it to be scary and horrible experience, realize that outside your bubble people with children who have had even a taste of real struggle know that those things are just part of life. And in no way does this knowledge make them any less capable than children of your own.

    Think about it and you’ll get it. I have nothing left to say to you other than that I will not reply simply because I believe that you and everyone else here has the capability to understand if you try hard enough. With that I tip my hat to you fine gentleman and ladies. Adieu! ;)

  • Did you not read the comment just above in which I warned about condescension?

  • Damn, somehow I saw this coming just by the trailer, it really didn’t look good. Didn’t read your review entirely because I’m waiting to see it still, but I’m not optimistic and I see that I was right in my fear.

    You know what the trailers made me feel like ? I thought I was looking at a Dreamworks movie.

    Also, Inside Out was a fantastic movie with a downright awful short at the beginning, and so this is backwards, apparently ? They should just have re-released Inside Out with that new short, I’d have gone and seen it again right away…

  • natef

    This isn’t anything like a Dreamworks movie. You’d understand how utterly ridiculous that comparison is after seeing it.

    I’m certain history will be kind to this film. It’s a lot more ambitious than people are giving it credit for right now.

  • Danielm80

    If this sheep can take a selfie without opposable thumbs, then dinosaurs can master agriculture:


  • Jesus Joseph Abeyta

    Planes IS NOT Pixar.

  • Jesus Joseph Abeyta

    Really? You thought it was “impossible to make a bad movie about dinosaurs” until Disney and Pixar proved you wrong? So what, did you think movies like “We’re Back: A Dinosaur Story,” “Theodore Rex,” “Barney’s Great Adventure,” and ANY of the Land Before Time movies minus the very
    first one were generally good? Oh you must of also LOVED “Tammy and the T-Rex” and “Adeventures in Dinosaur City.” Yeah, you’re totally right ONLY Disney and Pixar have made bad Dinosaur movies, THEM AND ONLY THEM RUINED DINOSAUR MOVIES FOREVER!!!!

    I am truly sorry if I’m coming off as a total jerk, but I’m sorry that comment was dumb as hell.

  • You *are* coming off as a total jerk. If you have something constructive to add to the conversation, you are welcome to contribute. But there’s no need to drop in as a newbie and insult my regulars (or anyone else, for that matter).

  • Rod Ribeiro

    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.

    You’re absolutely right. I saw this with two kids, 11 and 3. The 11-year-old was bored to death (she could anticipate every move and twist of the plot); the 3-year-old was scared of (SPOILER) Arlo’s dad’s death, Arlo getting seriously injured, big carnivorous dinosaurs (even after they weren’t bad at all), (SPOILER) a boy her own age almost drowning… It was really a lose-lose.

  • Meh

    I don’t understand why they chose such cartoony designs when literally at the beginning of the movie we have relatively real looking dinosaurs. Even the snake/lizard thing looks like it belongs in the world more than Arlo does

  • Bob Shook

    Dead parent in the first 15 minutes, too scary for young ones, rediculous story line and nothing original. I didn’t enjoy explaining what the word ‘murderer’ meant to my 7 year old. He finally had enough of the scariness of every other scene and asked me to turn it off. Happily. Don’t waste your time on this one.

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