In the previous ramble, I talked a lot about how The Good Dinosaur defies a lot of modern animation conventions, whilst going over the expectations that Pixar’s films normally get. Now I want to dive more into the film itself…
One of the things that makes The Good Dinosaur work so well amongst modern animated movies and its Pixar brethren is it’s relatively quieter and atmospheric tone…
When The Good Dinosaur takes it easy, it’s some of the most atmospheric, serene minutes ever offered by the Emeryville powerhouse. This is evident in most of the first half of the film, where the pacing is – for the most part – seriously on-point. Some of the early farm stuff breezes a bit, but after the death of Poppa Henry and Arlo’s subsequent trip down the river, the film begins to really take it easy. Rare for most modern animated films that are always on the move, The Good Dinosaur would rather take you on a trip through a visually resplendent forest than hastily run its away to the next plot point or gag. The story moves along naturally here, and the humor also naturally works its way into different sequences.
Initially it was a bit frustrating to see Arlo constantly fail, scream, and cower at things, but a progression is subtly taking place even if we may not notice it at first. With each new threat or danger, Arlo just gets through them, most likely keeping his father’s words in mind. Each time he makes it through something, he gets a brief sense of satisfaction before something new sets him off. These scenes also wonderfully establish Arlo and Spot’s unlikely friendship, a Pixar staple. As said before, the fact that Spot doesn’t talk enhances the mood of the picture while keeping in line with the more traditional storytelling that focuses more on the aura than the words.
I think the film loses this perfect pacing once Arlo and Spot face a destructive windstorm that tears through the woods. Perhaps we could’ve had a little more of that quiet crawling after they wake up, and then the storm, some more build-up, you know? It just feels so abrupt to me. The storm leads us to Arlo’s encounter with the pterodactyls (technically they seem to be a hybrid of different pterosaur species), which segues quite nicely into the portion of the film where it goes all-out Western. From here on out it’s very well-paced again.
Despite some little valleys in dialogue here and there, I love the Western portion of the film. The mood is nailed, the cowboy T-rexes are very fun, and Arlo’s story arc really starts to pick up here. In order to get back to the river that will take him home, Arlo makes a deal with the rough-and-tumble trio. He must help them with their lost herd, throwing him into a situation that he would’ve never dreamed of getting into. During an encounter with raptor rustlers that starts a buffalo stampede, he learns that while fear is a necessary part of life, you can’t let fear limit you. While some felt the telling of the message – excellent for both kids and adults who have their fears and anxieties – was weak and cliched, I felt it was subtle, even the expository scene where Butch tells Arlo a story about how he took on crocodiles… Scared while doing so! I don’t know about you, but the way Arlo’s confidence raises throughout this portion really shows his development with – again – few words. It’s the perfect lead-in to a satisfying, prolonged climax, and such a sad goodbye that uses no words whatsoever.
The farm chapter is a little sparse as well, jumping a bit too quickly from scene to scene. One of the elements that got cut from the film when Peter Sohn replaced Bob Peterson as director was Arlo’s society. In the original, Arlo and his family were part of a larger, herbivorous village of dinosaurs who were like Amish farmers. While the apatosaurs are farmers in the finished film, as detailed nicely in the opening sequence, it would’ve been nice to at least keep them and give the farmland a slight sense of community. At the same time, one could argue that the loneliness of the farm adds to the overall lonely vibe of the movie. Arlo and Spot meet very few faces on their journey, since they are in the wilderness and dinosaurs are civilized, but perhaps having some scenes with locals would’ve spruced the farmyard stuff up a bit. Having them be around also could’ve made the woods seem even lonelier than they already did! You can actually see, and buy, some of the unused dinosaurs. Since they were cut during production (from what I’ve seen, Sohn had hung onto the idea of Arlo’s family being part of an agrarian community well after the director change), the toys of some of these characters had already been made, and they got released anyway. It would’ve been cool to see a few more dinos in the movie.
In the previous part, I looked at Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur as the Pixar equivalents of a psychedelic album and a folk album respectively. Inside Out has the flourishes, the razzle-dazzle, the in-your-face inventiveness and trickery. The Good Dinosaur is more raw, more stripped down, but to the point, quieter, and can get its ideas across without having to dress them up in intricacies, making it arguably more direct. Inside Out‘s world and art direction ironically channel 1960s psychedelia and head films, while The Good Dinosaur‘s countryside imagery and tranquility easily evokes a folksy mood. The score, composed by Mychael and Jeff Danna, perfectly blends a moody nature/wilderness sound with country-and-Western themes.
Director Peter Sohn made it known several times that the film’s tone was heavily based on the early Walt Disney animated features, mainly the likes of Dumbo and Bambi. These were films that meant a lot to a young Sohn, whose mother – a Korean immigrant – had trouble speaking English. Films like those allowed the two to connect in many ways. A lot of that personal background makes it into this story, and if you listen to Sohn through interviews and the Blu-ray’s bonus features, he seems so humble about tackling his directorial debut. Sadly, as I’ve stressed many times before, the storytelling in Walt’s films seems to be ignored and misunderstood nowadays by writers, who in their thinkpieces dismiss older animated films (or specifically, prior to Disney’s hit-string Renaissance of the late 80s/early 90s) as “childish” and lacking in “complexity”.
Truthfully, Walt Disney’s best animated features were deceptively simplistic, much like this film. The greats like Snow White, Dumbo, Cinderella, and Lady and the Tramp are layered with all these textures and themes, all these little complexities that don’t have to be spelled out. They’re there, woven within their stories and characters, Walt wisely didn’t want to over-explain or have too much talking. In fact, during post-production of Bambi, it was reported that Walt felt there was way too much dialogue in the finished film… Bambi is one of the Disney films with the least amount of lines of dialogue, and Walt still thought it had too much… That says quite a lot right there!
Unfortunately, the Disney Renaissance and Pixar’s early successes inadvertently penned a sort of Animation Ten Commandments that dictate what makes a great animated film that is palatable to adults. I’ve often seen The Good Dinosaur written off as a Pixar film that’s more for kids than their usual broad audience, to that I ask… Why does straightforward and more traditional storytelling have to mean “less mature” or “more for kids”? Tons of great live-action films operate off of minimalism, or stories that subtly convey emotions without all those so-called “complexities”… No one would ever think of calling them lacking, or more childish.
The Disney Renaissance of the late 1980s made it “cool” to like animation again, for teens and adults who grew up in the 60s and 70s. Animation went through a prolonged period where it was seen as kids-only fluff, even though the great works of the Golden Age that were actually – shocker – meant for mass audiences, not a particular target audience. This includes not only Walt Disney’s work, but also the work of Warner Bros., the Fleischers, MGM, Walter Lantz, TerryToons, and others. These were features and cartoons made during a time when filmmakers couldn’t be too inappropriate with their content, the Hays Code was very strict in those days before the MPAA created the rating system in 1968. By 1968, the Golden Age of Animation was dead. Walt Disney was dead. Saturday morning cartoons made strictly for kids was dominant from here on out, and Disney didn’t evolve with the times without Walt, sticking to making innocuous family entertainment like The Aristocats… This is what created the animation stigmas of the 1970s and 1980s.
When animation had its resurgence in the late 1980s with Don Bluth’s An American Tail and The Land Before Time, Robert Zemeckis and Richard Williams’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Disney’s The Little Mermaid, it seemed like animation had finally become “adult” after 65+ years… Everything from the past was generally looked at as archaic kids’ stuff. Even to this day, we have people saying exactly what I just said. Since The Good Dinosaur aligns with the earlier Walt films, it consequently gets labeled shallow and childish. Inside Out is what animation “should be”, says these writers who clearly have little-to-no understanding of the history of the medium.
Animation can tell any kind of story, it doesn’t need to do this or that in order to qualify as “adult”, or something adults won’t be embarrassed watching. It’s almost like these writers feel that animation needs to be to their specific liking, or else it’s for kids and not worthy of their consideration. There needs to be “adult humor”, quips, stories with overwrought plots, heaps of darkness, the like…
This brings to me to the complaints over the film’s tone, and in the previous part I felt there was no harsh divide between the lighter moments and the scenes where Arlo faces trouble. See, I didn’t view the film as a shallow, kiddier Pixar film, so when a rougher scene began, it didn’t feel out of place. Like early Walt films, sweeter moments sit right alongside harsh ones. The Good Dinosaur is no different. Everything coalesced nicely, nothing jarred. Refreshingly, there were no overly modern gags or lines of dialogue here. No attempts to be hip or needlessly naughty. One “adult” joke is subtly slipped into one scene, while a short scene of Spot marking his territory isn’t as blatant as your average fart joke.
To demonstrate nature’s sporadic intensity, the storytellers don’t hold back. A raging river knocks Arlo around, slamming him against a rock. The encounter with the pterodactyls and the stampede have strong suspense, and Arlo’s battle to save Spot from the aforementioned pterodactyls during a raging storm – the very one that took his father’s life – produce thrills. Many parents reported that their kids were scared during these stretches, and that’s good. What’s wrong with bite in animated family films? The criticisms that say the bite doesn’t match the sweetness, I respectably don’t understand or agree with them. To me, the criticisms make it sound like it was a Barney the Dinosaur movie suddenly becoming violent and dark.
The character designs… I liked how they clashed with such a beautiful and often deadly, photoreal environment. Others felt like it was akin to watching kiddie show characters in the middle of the wrong movie. In essence, I was kind of looking at a hyper-realistic attempt to bring more abstract, shape-based dinosaur designs into a world that looked like it could’ve been filmed with a camera. To me, that was unique and kind of bold. Almost as if the film was poking fun at the move towards photoreal visuals in computer-generated caricature animation. Honestly, more realistic dinos would’ve been boring. Due to the strong character animation and the storytelling, I was able to relate to these cutesy dinos.
Perhaps if The Good Dinosaur came out many moons ago, didn’t have the weight of “Pixar standards” hanging on its back from the get-go, and didn’t need to abide by nonexistent modern animation “rules”, who knows how it would’ve been received. It is decidedly old-fashioned, in a day and age that requires animation to meet specific benchmarks in order to qualify as adult, valid, and of good-quality. Its weirder and unique qualities, from its Wild West worldbuilding to its atmosphere, would probably be appreciated and called “different”. Perhaps if Pixar never unveiled it as “the movie where the asteroid missed”, it could’ve been looked at differently.
This movie is less about “what if dinosaurs never went extinct”, and more about the main character’s goals, his struggle with his own weaknesses, and how he comes to terms with the harshness of the world. The asteroid missing is more of a backdrop that justifies the dinosaurs’ human-like lives and jobs, whether it’s farming or ranching. Part of me wants to see more of this world, and what other parts of it are like. What are other dino civilizations like around North America and overseas? From the research trips and the design, we can surmise that the movie takes place in Wyoming. What’s the North like? The South? Other continents?
It’s too bad the film failed at the box office, because I would’ve *loved* to have seen a sequel to this film. Usually I don’t necessarily *want* sequels out of most movies, I only make exceptions for summer blockbuster-types that explicitly set them up (i.e., things like Guillermo del Toro’s monster epic Pacific Rim) or adaptations of characters who come from long-running series. I would’ve liked to have seen more sides to the alternate world of dinos, either with a direct sequel (starring Arlo and his family) or a story focusing on other dinosaurs. Maybe somewhere down the road, Pixar could revisit the premise alone and have a wildly different film set in the same universe, a sort of blood relative of the first. It kind of reminds me of how Walt Disney and his crew originally planned to have the scrapped feature Bongo be set in the same universe as Dumbo, featuring characters from that film. Bongo ended up being a half-hour piece of the package feature Fun and Fancy Free in 1947, and was ultimately unconnected to the earlier elephant film, only sharing some similar ideas.
In fact, I wouldn’t mind Pixar making spin-offs set in the worlds they’ve created. Part of me seriously wishes Cars 2 was just about Finn McMissile and Holley, with the original cast just making cameos. I also have always wanted to see more of the Monster World that was established in Monsters, Inc., for prequel Monsters University only took us to a big campus. The TV specials and shorts, I think, can do just that. Since Pixar is no stranger to sequels – supposedly the creatively bankrupt method of reheating old things – I don’t see why they shouldn’t do this. They can still come up with great new stuff, but also have fun revisiting worlds they’ve established in the past.
Looking at some of the above concept artwork and renders that date from the Peterson days, I wish somehow some way that stuff can make it into a sequel or spin-off, but alas…
The Good Dinosaur also doesn’t seem to fit that aesthetic we normally associate with Pixar, the hopping lamp, and the star ball… That sort of Toy Story-ian, “wouldn’t it be cool if?” (to quote Glen Keane) atmosphere that you can feel in a lot of their other features. Not that this is a bad thing, it’s merely part of their house style and tone. The Good Dinosaur is a breakaway from that, sitting alongside similarly off-kilter films like The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up, and Brave. Those who complain about that but want Pixar to branch out to other tones and moods, I don’t know what to tell you. Honestly, I’m okay with something that doesn’t “feel like Pixar” in terms of the aesthetics and mood. That’s good! Keep giving me things I don’t expect! As long as it keeps good storytelling, that’s all that matters. Perhaps some folks’ dissatisfaction with the film’s content makes them overall dislike the different style the film goes for.
Of course, we all aren’t going to see the same thing the same way, and that’s okay. There are plenty of valid criticisms of this film out there, but I feel it’s lazy to write the film off on the grounds that it didn’t meet certain “rules” that shouldn’t be a thing. If your problems are with the execution of the story, that’s fine. I think, too often, on the Internet, films like these are criticized heavily without any consideration. Just a simple “it sucks” with a few vague explanations why that is, and that’s it. Maybe it’s my frustration with the all-too-common backlash that Pixar gets for making a certain kind of movie, or not making a super-perfect masterpiece with each film. The whole talk of the studio “betraying” someone or “going downhill” is mystifying.
If I didn’t care for the streak of films between Toy Story 3 and Finding Dory, I’d simply say “I didn’t care for those… Better luck next time, guys.” I’d elaborate, not just say “they sucked.” I think my love for certain bands has kind of shaped the way I embrace certain things, even the more divisive ones. As a long time Beatles and Beach Boys fan, I know what rock-bottom can be, I know how some things work for some folk, not at all for others.
When The Beatles had broken up, they had left a real legacy, a mostly untainted line-up of studio albums. The monumental Abbey Road, released in September of 1969, was technically the last album they had recorded. John Lennon had quietly left the band by the time the album was released, it was pretty much over, even if it wasn’t publicly announced just yet. That would occur in April 1970, after Paul McCartney’s fight with the others over the release date of his first solo album. The legal, inked break-up occurred a few years later.
Initially, McCartney’s solo work was expected to be The Beatles. His first album, McCartney, decidedly was not a new Beatle-esque album. Unlike the eclectic self-titled White Album, or the otherworldly qualities of Abbey Road, McCartney was a collection of raw, stripped down ditties that were layered with McCartney’s usual, infectious melodies. Lyrics were lowkey about his newfound life on his Scottish farm, away from the public, The Beatles, the stardom, and everything else. This was not an album full of epic ‘Hey Jude’ tearjerkers or rockin’ ‘Lady Madonna’-types, it didn’t necessarily have offbeat, psychedelic ‘Fixing a Hole’ numbers. It’s very short, too. This polarized many, disappointed many…
Nowadays, most of Paul’s early, pre-Band on the Run albums are seen as classics in their own right, some go as far as saying that McCartney and its much more fleshed-out successor Ram were early “indie” albums. A striking contrast to the harder rock and the psychedelia of the times, where everything had to have a relevant message or had to be with it in some way or another. McCartney was gleefully out of step, much like The Beach Boys were after the collapse of SMiLE in 1967. While the work of the Wilsons, Love, Jardine, and Johnston were largely ignored by the record-buying public, Paul’s output got *trashed* by the critics and his former bandmates. Paul’s work, however, sold extremely well. In The Beach Boys’ case, poor US sales notwithstanding, criticism varied from album to album. Some were loved (Sunflower), others drew more mixed responses (Carl and the Passions)…
There are two albums from Paul’s early period that are still divisive to this day, and both are the first two albums by his post-Beatles band Wings: Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway. The former came from a spur-of-the-moment idea. Paul had heard that Bob Dylan knocked out an album in a week, so he thought “let’s do that!” Not a wise business decision for a band debut album. In terms of reviews, it did not matter, McCartney and Ram were already called the worst things ever. However, it was met with weak sales. To this day, if you were to ask fans, it’s either a charming minimalist work full of little gems, or Paul just not giving a darn.
Red Rose Speedway was an attempt to course-correct, an album recorded throughout most of 1972, leaving the year without a new McCartney album – just a couple of singles and a continental Europe tour. Much more produced, but yet it still had that weirdo homespun charm of the previous three LPs. The reception was mixed upon its release, nowadays you’ll hear that it’s either unsung McCartney brilliance or cloying, worthless fiddle-faddle muzak.
A lot of McCartney’s solo stuff, outside of the universally-loved likes of Band on the Run and Flaming Pie, is divisive like this. You’ll always have the side that sees lots of hidden merits in the albums, while others write them off and find those “merits” to be trite. Venus and Mars, it’s either fun arena rock with multiple flavors, or pandering, sell-out, low-grade McCartney. Back to the Egg, successfully at being a bit punky and new wavey? Or Paul trying too hard to be relevant? McCartney II takes the cake, you’ll either love the electronic backbone or hate it.
With The Beach Boys, one hugely divisive album is the Brian Wilson-dominated Love You from 1977. It’s either the most unusually brilliant thing in the band’s canon, or a hopelessly out-of-touch album written by a recovering addict/madman who had by that point regressed into a – if you ask some, off-putting – childish state. Is 1972’s Carl and the Passions diverse and exciting? Or dull and disjointed? Is Holland mature and moody, or samey-sounding? When you get to the post-Love You stuff, the reactions vary sharply. M.I.U. Album is long called a Beach Boys disaster, but defenders will say it has some fine melodies and some catchy songs. The same goes for the very adult contemporary-esque L.A. (Light Album), then things get really heated with subsequent albums.
Outside of Pixar and all-time greatest bands, this is everywhere. Some random examples… The Marvel Cinematic Universe, one of its most divisive entries is and always will be Iron Man Three. Many fans seriously despised how the film handled Tony Stark’s legendary rival The Mandarin, who in the film turned out to be an artificial terrorist devised by a vengeful businessman. (Serious Buddy Pine vibes, there.) Others, like myself, loved this twist and felt it suited what was a big-scale detective story more so than a superhero epic. Nothing can be more divisive than the DC Cinematic Universe, three negatively received movies in. Man of Steel is either the true Superman movie we need, or a spit in the face. Batman v Superman, meaningful epic or horrible mish-mash of things, action, and forced darkness. Suicide Squad is either great fun, or a poorly-edited film that seriously falls short of what it sets out to be.
I love this kind of thing, personally. Something divisive tends to be a bit more interesting than something that is widely recognized as good or great. You can discuss the merits of Toy Story or The Incredibles or Inside Out, but what can you say that hasn’t been said? With a film like The Good Dinosaur, the varying opinions makes it interesting. Yes, I’d argue this very film was… Polarizing. You either love the traditionalism and atmosphere of it like I do, or you think it’s lacking, boring, uneven garbage. With Brave, you’re either on board a tender mother-daughter story, or frustrated at the lack of high fantasy elements and the similarities Merida has to other animated princesses. You may even think she’s unsympathetic! Monsters University is either a fun, slow-burn piece that develops Mike as a character while having a strong message, or it’s bland and uneventful and totally not Pixar-like. Cars 2! The big one! Fun spy blockbuster? Or the most insulting lowest-common-denominator junk pile ever?!
No shock, I like every Pixar film. Cars 2 is the only one I don’t love, but I love certain parts. Call me a shill, too loyal, whatever, it’s how I see it. It’s okay if one sees it another way, it ultimately adds to a compelling discussion that I feel hasn’t quite been explored just yet. In some pockets of the net, I’ve seen very well thought-out discussions on the “lesser” Pixars, with thought-out criticisms and defenses… But there could more of it, not just “That sucks! Pixar is doomed!” The Good Dinosaur, for a “lesser” or “divisive” Pixar, is quite the film…
Like I had said in part uno, I dug it. I dug it, big time.