A Meandering Discussion on ‘The Good Dinosaur’

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I always felt that Pixar was sort of a victim of their own success. Think about it. You dash out of the gate with your debut feature, which was innovative in the world of both animation and cinema. You follow that up with fifteen years of critically acclaimed box office smashes, each and every one doing something new and exciting with computer animation. You also tend to be offering films that are unscathed by studio executives, while other studios are being shackled by them.

For a little while, it seemed like Pixar was the only game in town. The early 2000s saw very few good-to-great mainstream animated films outside of Pixar’s. Walt Disney Feature Animation was sadly overstaffed with executives, who were destroying each new project with their notes and focus group twaddle. DreamWorks’ traditionally animated features were compromised by unreasonable rules (they had to be very serious), while the computer animated send-up Shrek was allowed to let loose. Consequently, that film got great reviews and was a big sleeper at the box office. Blue Sky made the slapstick-laden and fun Ice Age, and at the time had yet to show if they still had it or not. The Disney imitators of the 90s finally withered away at this point.

Pixar continued to be regarded as the only good animation studio in the United States, when in reality, by the end of the decade, other houses stepped it up. Disney Animation got back on track after Michael Eisner was ousted as company CEO (and ironically, Pixar’s head honcho John Lasseter helped revive the studio and re-install their locked up creative culture), DreamWorks began making good quality films like Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon, Sony Animation surprised with Surf’s Up and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, plus you had some smaller houses getting their films out into the mainstream world. 2009 in particular was a watershed year, a year where films like Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox got a lot of coverage.

I remember it very well… Pixar was the greatest studio in all of the world, doing everything right that all of Hollywood was doing wrong. People even went as far as saying that they could make films about things like “paint drying” and they’d still be great. A particular quad of movies, I think, caused this: Culinary comedy Ratatouille, post-apocalyptic spacebound robot love story WALL-E, and the melancholic adventure Up. All original stories, no less! Then Pixar topped that off by making the rare great threequel – Toy Story 3.

Now, there were two particular Pixar films made between that roughly 15-year stretch that weren’t – going by popular consensus – as beloved. A Bug’s Life, their very second feature, was one of them. Cars was the other. The simplicity of both was scoffed at, because apparently the golden rule for feature animation is… Animated features have to be incredibly complex and dizzying in their ambitions, and have to have all of these little intricacies and have to be bold… Many complained about the world the latter takes place in. With every detractor of those two films, there were defenders. Count me in as a defender of both, I think A Bug’s Life works off of its lightweight structure (lightweight doesn’t have to mean “bad” or “unworthy”) and provides a fun adventure with great characters and good humor, Cars is a tranquil love letter to car culture, Americana, and the lost highways of the country. It’s one of the most personal Pixar films.

I don’t subscribe to the belief that any given animated movie has to be some kind of specific marvel. People, I think, have a narrow definition of what makes a great animated movie so special. So many thinkpieces and reviews and editorials that praise animated movies often do it to modern animated films, whilst writing anything older than the Disney Renaissance (before 1989’s The Little Mermaid) off as inferior. Or shallow. Or even worse, “just for kids”. A complete spit in the face to Walt Disney’s animated features and everything Walt fought for in the medium he loved and believed in. With that, some writers miss the merits and thematic richness of Walt Disney’s best animated films. They see paper-thin kiddie flicks with little to no plot (because plot is *everything*), they don’t see animated works of art.

I think they apply this kind of condescension to animation that doesn’t set the world on fire, more specifically Pixar films that don’t set the world on fire. It’s okay if Disney Animation makes something as slapped together as Frozen, they praised it out the wazoo. They gave middling DreamWorks and Illumination fare passes because the films in question were cute and kinda entertaining. But heaven forbid Pixar make a straightforward film that isn’t trying to be hyper-complex, there’s a problem. There’s a whiff of disappointment in the reviews. It’s not as simple as “not the greatest, but still good”…

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For me, I’m more surprised that Pixar even got as far as making 9-to-11 critical darlings in a row before their first poorly-received film came out. It just happened, you know? Not like they were the gods of perfection, they were human beings that just happened to make universally loved movies on a consistent basis. Like I often say, it makes me wish that for every Toy Story and Incredibles, there would be an A Bug’s Life or Cars-type movie to break things up and ultimately temper people’s expectations. They were like animation’s Beatles, every Beatles studio album is pretty much revered in some way or another, then and now. They enjoyed a streak that Walt himself could’ve enjoyed had World War II never happened and knocked the studio to the ground. Think of a world where after Bambi, Walt was able to go ahead with lavish, big budget adaptations of Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and a plethora of other untapped stories… All the while innovating with the medium and re-releasing Fantasia with new segments like he originally wanted to do…

Actually, excepting the package feature years, Walt Disney’s line-up of animated features is actually very, very strong. The first five (the BIG five) are bona fide masterpieces, many of the 1950s films are top-notch, when you get to the 60s its gets a wee bit rocky. The Sword in the Stone is perhaps the odd duck, given that the film is pretty much charming episodes strung together with no real conclusion, yet doesn’t completely fall flat, that’s because of the characters and how fun it is. Even Walt at his worst was still very worthwhile.

I think The Beatles comparison is also apt, but The Beatles broke up roughly seven years after the release of their first studio album. Suppose they didn’t. Suppose by mid-1970, everything had been patched up and the band was able to function as a unit again… Reality is, they would’ve turned out a divisive or not-so-high-quality album some time in the 70s or 80s. Take a listen to the worst of the solo stuff (Paul McCartney’s mid-80s stuff, John Lennon’s Some Time in New York City, Ringo Starr’s late 70s/early 80s albums), of course no extremely talented human being can keep turning out magic with each new release. But we should move on from a lower quality release, cherish the good, and hope for the best in the future…

For some reason, a good chunk of Pixar’s fan base can’t and will not do that. Cars 2 was a punch in the face, a complete act of betrayal, apparently. When the more modest Brave and Monsters University arrived on the scene, the narrative got even more bitter. Inside Out then won them back, but then they lit the torches again when The Good Dinosaur arrived in theaters this past autumn. Perhaps because it came off of the acclaimed and ambitious Inside Out (read: a movie that fits their definition of what a Pixar movie “should be”), the “slap in the face” was worse than the previous ones. In some circles, it was even more cancerous than Cars 2! They treated Pixar like a delinquent kid who kept turning to crime.

This time, they had more opportunities… The Good Dinosaur was Pixar’s first money-losing feature at the box office, grossing $321 million against its massive $175 million budget. The detractors saw the open wound, and *pounced*. Its bad quality caused it to flop and that was *that*. Fact, fact, fact, fact, FACT. Never mind subjectivity, that nice 77% percent on the almighty “Great Decider of What’s Quality” site Rotten Tomatoes meant “critical failure”. A solid 3.2x multiplier at the box office, in the face of competition like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, meant “audiences aren’t liking it”… Shows a lot of holes in film commentary, doesn’t it?

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The Good Dinosaur is actually more interesting to discuss because of how divisive it is. I tend to like “divisive Pixar”, so I ended up loving the movie. Why’s that? I didn’t expect Inside Out with it, or something like WALL-E or Ratatouille. That doesn’t mean I looked down on it, quite the opposite. To me, a fine execution of a story is what makes a movie. I didn’t love those other Pixar films because of what they were about, but rather what they did with those elements. Inside Out‘s complex pocket-watch plot would’ve meant nothing to me if I didn’t care for the characters or the way they chose to tell the story. All of that stuff to me is frosting. If I treated all movies like they had to be these complex, pocket-watch marvels, I’d miss out on A LOT of great films – both old and new. So, the rather hypocritical “Pixar Standards” approach to evaluating Pixar’s films? Does not exist to me…

It’s all about the storytelling and the characters. A lot of the best animated movies that have that don’t have what Inside Out or WALL-E or Up have, and that does *not* make them inferior by any stretch. Just because one cake is more extravagant doesn’t mean the other one doesn’t have its merits. The Good Dinosaur knows exactly what it is, and it doesn’t try to be something it is not. It is so straightforward that the “it’s tonally confused!” criticisms make no sense to me. A very direct story about a weakling dinosaur being put through the wringer by the harshness of nature in his quest to get back home, it’s deceptively simplistic. The film operates on a raw level, using very little dialogue to convey the characters’ emotions.

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Having nature be the antagonist of the film makes it ring closer to Walt Disney’s Bambi, nature can be breathtaking and serene. At other times, it can be brutal, deadly, and nightmarish. Arlo doesn’t like the fact that he’s so fearful, and probably – even though the film doesn’t outright say it or spell it out – feels that his cowardice is what caused his father’s death, making him to take it out on Spot. What he does not know is that fear is a necessary and important part of life, but one that doesn’t have to control your life and make you limit yourself… Which he learns towards the end of the film from a trio of tyrannosaur ranchers. “If you ain’t scared, you ain’t alive,” Butch says to him at the campfire. Couple that with one of his father’s last words to him (“You’re me, and more.”), and Arlo’s journey of self-discovery works so well.

Maybe it’s not wordy about it, but does it have to be? Good Dinosaur goes a very traditional, old-fashioned route when conveying these great themes. It fits in perfectly with the old-timey Western aesthetic of the setting and tone. In a world that calls Walt’s films lacking and childish while praising modern films as “more adult” and “more complex” (complex is a word I seriously dislike because of these very writers), this should come as no surprise. The Good Dinosaur is often called one of Pixar’s “more for kids” films, but why can’t a story be more straightforward? Why does straightforward and unpretentious have to equal “more kiddie”? No one says that about live-action films, now do they?

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If Walt Disney Animation Studios or DreamWorks or Blue Sky made this film, it would be called a dark horse, a “surprisingly” good film. Because, you know, every studio is naturally inferior to the almighty Pixar. If they make something exceptional, it’s called “surprisingly” good. Again, Pixar is elevated to a ridiculous standard that downplays the good and great works of other animation studios. If Disney or DreamWorks or Blue Sky or Sony or any given studio makes a great film, I won’t call it “surprisingly” great. I know those studios are more than capable of making quality films. “You’re me, and more”…

It seems like The Good Dinosaur and Disney’s Animation Zootopia – which opened four months later to universal praise and boffo box office – really exposed the problems in modern animated movie criticism. Zootopia was that “surprisingly” good Disney animated film, it was “like Pixar”… When I saw Zootopia, I didn’t think that at all. More than anything, I was impressed by how Walt-like Zootopia was. Yes, that’s right. Walt Disney-esque! Oh wait, Walt Disney only made happy dappy children’s movies that didn’t have rich themes. I forgot. My bad.

Anyways, long story short, I go into every new Pixar film expecting something good. Not the next mountain-mover, not the next-best thing in the whole wide universe, I just expect something that will bring me absolute joy and leave me with something. Something I’ll want to watch again and again, something I can get a lot out of. It’s okay if some Pixar movies don’t do it for you, we’re all not going to love the same things. To suggest that they should live up to a nonexistent standard, I think, is unfair – especially when you let other studios off the hook. Pixar is a studio full of people, not gods. People like you, me, and everyone else… The Good Dinosaur isn’t perfect. I thought Inside Out was the better film, but not because of how complex or how dizzying it was in its ambitions. It was the execution that was better, I think.

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The Good Dinosaur‘s only issues, to me, involved the pacing and some of the dialogue. Thankfully the film doesn’t speak much, but at some points it can feel a bit awkwardly-written. Its faster moments, I think, clash with the slow pace the film is going for. Actually, I have it on the same level as Finding Dory, supposedly the exponentially better Pixar offering. The Good Dinosaur refreshingly doesn’t race through its 93-minute run time, though in some pockets, it darts and leaves me wanting to soak in the specific scenes a little more. But pacing is extremely hard to master, I know this as a writer… Pacing something that has to clock in under 100 minutes must be an editing nightmare… so for the most part, the film is pretty even in its pacing. Just not A-grade.

Compare it to Bambi. Bambi is not even 70 minutes long, and like The Good Dinosaur it doesn’t have bad guys in it, just the unpredictable forces of nature. The Good Dinosaur is different in that it’s a Western and has a weird kind of worldbuilding, but it also goes for hyper-realism. The visuals at many points in the movie look dangerously close to real life, making some ask “Why even animate it at all?” Bambi on the other hand takes advantage of the fact that it’s animated, heightening real life with beautifully painted and intricately detailed forests, abstracting things like thunderstorms and deer marches and forest fires, using color to really bring out the moods of certain scenes. The Good Dinosaur is all about realism, but almost pokes at its own art direction by having the character designs be very, very unrealistic.

It seems almost deliberate to me, as if it’s a send up of how computer animated films these days aim to really look like real life, to the point where it makes fans and even some animation legends (!) worry that animation is being anti-animation. “Live-action” films like Avatar, Life of Pi, Gravity, and Disney’s recent The Jungle Book have really blurred the lines, too. If CG can create such life-like things, shouldn’t caricature animation challenge this and itself by re-embracing its inherent unreal-ness? Animation that knows it’s drawings or CG models or puppets can experiment more, and can truly be what live-action isn’t and can’t be. With animation, live-action is now being able to do things it couldn’t do that animation could only do many decades ago. In 1940, no live action film could match the Monstro chase in Pinocchio, or the dinosaurs in Fantasia. Now, in 2016, we need more films that can do things that live-action really can’t do. Once photographs were able to get the real-life subjects that only painters like Rembrandt could get centuries ago, art went exciting new directions that life couldn’t emulate.

The big trick is, that has to feel real… And you can get that in films like Kubo and the Two Strings, Song of the SeaThe Book of Life, The Rabbi’s Cat, The Red Turtle, and so on. Unfortunately traditional animation is ignored by our big animation executives for unfounded reasons, and it was their fetish for CG’s realism (and money-making) over a decade ago that helped lock that medium out of the house. Pixar’s people always knew CGI was all but a tool, the ignorant executives saw it as the be-all end-all.

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But back to The Good Dinosaur‘s look… Yes, I feel immersed in this alternate world where dinosaurs never went extinct. Even if the hyper-realism may defeat the ultimate purpose of animation, it’s still breathtaking in every way. Any scene is a marvel on its own, visually, and that’s to say nothing of the moments where there are fireflies. The character designs never bothered me, for I quite like the contrast. It was an artistic choice, and certainly a very risky one – anyone who knows a thing or two about making animated films should know that. Some feel that both aesthetics completely clashed, while others liked the dichotomy just fine. Count me as one of the folks who was quite fond of it. Realistic dinos have been done before in and out of feature animation, so I didn’t mind overtly cartoony dinosaurs being the stars. Actually, I quite liked some of the designs: Particularly Forrest Woodbush and Butch.

It has some weirdo worldbuilding, too! The apatosaur family are farmers, the beasts themselves function like farming equipment. They use their heads to make rows for the crops (the earlier iteration of this film was supposed to detail other herbivorous dinosaurs’ ways of farming, which would’ve been very interesting to see!), feed very odd-looking chickens, have a house, fences, it’s all really cool, well thought-out stuff! The T-rexes are the ranchers of this Western dinosaur world, and their run cycle is more akin to galloping horses than mighty tyrannosaurs! They herd livestock, big buffalo-like beasts. The aforementioned Forrest Woodbush is the one with nature, the kooky shaman who resides deep in the forests, and aside from his already twisted design, he’s got all these cool alternate-world critters on his horns: From sabor-toothed beavers to alien-like lizards.

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Tonally, I didn’t think it was uneven. At all. A lot of negative reviews felt that the film aggressively ping-ponged between cutesy-wootsy and devastatingly dark. What film did we watch? Even though it has a PG rating, I don’t think The Good Dinosaur‘s more intense parts were anywhere near Toy Story 3‘s G-rated incinerator climax. A few times our main dino gets tossed around and gets a bit roughed up, but it’s pretty much a 90s G movie. (A time when the PG rating was mostly given to movies that really earned it.) Its lighter moments, I felt, were handled just fine. A few cute and funny scenes here and there, some heartwarming ones there.

The darker moments were simply played straight. When a storm comes, it just happens. Some faces Arlo meets aren’t all that civilized, one sequence pits him against religious freak-esque pterodactyls who live their life by the many storms that tear through their neck of the woods. In one scene, they act all nicey-nice towards a cute little critter… And then one of them devours it, just like that! So I don’t see such a divide between the harsher and the lighter moments, the way the film balances them is no different from something like – again – Bambi. Cutesy scenes of Bambi and his adventures with Thumper sit cheek-and-jowl with things like the forest fire, the death of Bambi’s mother, and man’s invasion of the forest. What I saw was a quiet, Western-tinged, out-in-the-country survival film. Of course there are times when things will get rough, but like life, there are always the more joyful and peaceful moments. I felt it was balanced just fine.

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Perhaps The Good Dinosaur was a victim of its own premise. When you’re told that Pixar is making a movie about an alternate timeline where dinosaurs never got wiped out by the meteor, your mind runs WILD. You think of all these possible scenarios, all of these highly inventive settings and rules. You think of things like dinos co-existing with humans, or something similar. In a way, Pixar completely went against the grain and delivered something so unlikely and so minimalist under such a sprawling concept. When footage of the early version (we’ll get to that!) was screened at the 2013 D23 Expo, some responses gave off an aura of disappointment: It’s about a dinosaur meeting a caveboy? That’s it?

The Good Dinosaur has also become notorious for its troubled production history. Its been used to crack the mystery, as to why this picture lost money. Apparently the difficulties the Pixarians had getting this to the big screen doomed it from the very start. Never mind the fact that Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille went through the same exact problems in the years before their respective theatrical debuts… And several other films, animated or not. Pinocchio, Jaws, Apocalypse Now, anyone? The troubled production had little to do with it flopping.

I’ll tell you what did it… Marketing.

Or lack of.

I started my job at my local Cinemark back in August 2015, and let me tell you… This movie had little to no presence there. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Disney’s other huge holiday season release, was everywhere. Obviously. Couldn’t escape it! Good Dinosaur had a few trailers, some TV spots, that was about it… But none of those trailers or TV spots gave mass audiences a reason to shell out $11-per-ticket to go see it. Perhaps Disney should’ve given it an October release. A relatively quieter time. Disney has shown this year and last year that they can’t seem to handle a ton of big budget pictures at once, so they market the heck out of the potential smashes, and leave a lot of the unguaranteed ones to wither. (As we saw this year with The BFG and Pete’s Dragon.)

That’s exactly what they did to The Good Dinosaur. When a movie bombs, it’s usually because no one wants to see it in the first place. After its relatively paltry opening, the film made a decent 3.2x its opening weekend. That’s very impressive considering the tidal wave it was up against. Worldwide, it did decently. Not amazing, but decent. If that darned budget wasn’t anywhere near $175 million, Good Dinosaur would’ve been profitable. No one would’ve talked about its “quality” or its troubled production or its delay. They certainly didn’t say those things about The Angry Birds Movie, which made around the same amount domestically *and* worldwide, because that movie – middling reviews and all – only cost $73 million to make. Different narrative!

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Concept art from the earlier, Bob Peterson-helmed version.

Sometimes in animation-land, a project can’t quite come together. The Good Dinosaur was the brainchild of Bob Peterson, a Pixar veteran who co-directed Up and was instrumental in several of their early hits, whilst providing voices for some of their best and funniest supporting characters. (Roz, Mr. Ray, Dug, to name a few.) This was supposed to be his full-on directorial debut, as it entered early development in 2009. All Pixar films, all animated films for that matter, hit roadblocks during development. Sometimes the roadblock encounters lead to great solutions, some stall projects till things get critical.

The Good Dinosaur got to a point where things were not working. Peterson apparently had crafted a story that was chock-full of characters, had multiple subplots, and suffered from having too much going on. The dealbreaker, supposedly, was his inability to crack the third act. By summer 2013, that May 30, 2014 release date was looming. Bob Peterson was finally removed from the director’s chair. Unlike previous Pixar films – Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille – that had gone through this transition, The Good Dinosaur was delayed by a year and a half. After trying to fix Peterson’s story for a few weeks, it was decided that they’d start fresh. They’d pull an Emperor’s New Groove on an already far-enough-along project.

The Emperor’s New Groove is an apt comparison because that film began life as a big musical epic called Kingdom of the Sun, a Roger Allers-helmed monolith that was pretty much another Disney Renaissance movie. It began work in the mid-1990s, and by 1998 it ran into serious problems. With little time and things already locked and scheduled (not to mention whole sequences being animated, and colored!), Allers was removed from his film, and Mark Dindal was given the keys to the car. Dindal and crew completely revised the whole thing, only keeping a few elements from Allers’ story: A good chunk of the characters, the Incan setting, and the idea of people turning into llamas. Everything else… The songs, the sun plot, the love interest, all out the window. The Emperor’s New Groove, the newly rebooted Kingdom of the Sun, began in early 1999 and was released in the winter of 2000. The company, having no confidence in the irreverent and highly expensive comedy, left it to die. Thankfully, it garnered a following and was something of a sleeper.

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That’s essentially what Pixar did. They kept the premise, the main characters, and some of that rural feel. Everything else was gone. Peterson, unlike many a removed director at Pixar, is still at the studio and is developing another original project. We can’t say anything about the Peterson version, because that film was never finished. If you some how, some way see a workprint of the first two acts, you still can’t determine it would’ve been a better film. What if the released version of that had an underwhelming conclusion? Or elements that soil the good parts?

The Good Dinosaur was a welcome callback to the traditional, old school ways that are all but absent from mainstream animation today. Animation that either has to be the most amazing thing ever, or the most comedic thing ever. The Good Dinosaur is neither of these things, recalling the quieter, atmospheric days of Walt, but also channeling older family films in general that didn’t rely on cheap gimmicks or forced attempts to keep bored parents interested. Maybe now, that’s passe and immature. I can see it faring better in the 90s, or before that. Not in a day and age that won’t take a bite if it’s not reaching specific benchmarks.

Maybe somewhere down the road, the film’s kind of storytelling will be looked at. It’ll be that kind of film that wasn’t quite liked at first, but re-evaluated. 20 years later, we’re still demanding a certain formula out of animated features because of how wowed we were by the Disney Renaissance, Pixar’s early streak of hits, Shrek, and others.

If Inside Out was like Pixar’s psychedelic rock album, The Good Dinosaur is their stripped down folk album. It may not sound exciting and mindblowing at first, but there’s something there. In conclusion, put me in the “loved it” camp. Continued…

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