Movie Review: The Good Dinosaur (2015)

While The Good Dinosaur is a heartwarming, tear-jerking adventure set with beautiful backgrounds and family-friendly themes, it’s still not Disney/Pixar’s best film. 

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The Disney/Pixar collaboration is known for their great films. They are household movies and families flock to cinemas every year to see the newest addition to the lofty Disney/Pixar film collection. Even Disney/Pixar’s worst films (i.e.: Cars, Ratatouille, A Bug’s Life.) are still good movies. Unfortunately, The Good Dinosaur isn’t on par with what we expect from a Disney/Pixar film, but its still a good family film.

Sanjay’s Super Team

I should begin with a short review of the animated short that aired before The Good Dinosaur. Pixar Animated Shorts are nothing but top-notch, with various films winning multiple awards over the years. People have become as excited to see the new Disney/Pixar short as they are to see the movie it accompanies. With such high-quality animated shorts as Paperman, Lava, and For the Birds, I honestly wonder how this one fell through the cracks. While I am all for superheroes, Sanjay’s Super Team fell short of what was expected.

Not even the animation was all that great. I think of shorts like Paperman, which was really groundbreaking in its monochromatic scheme and handdrawn animation. The animation for Sanjay’s Super Team was very basic and safe, doing nothing to push the limits or exhibit expert animation.

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Pixar animated shorts are great because of animation, but they are memorable because of the intricate stories they manage to tell in a few, short minutes. Sanjay’s Super Team tells a story that is more or less a simple memoir with no overarching themes. Sanjay is a little boy who is more occupied with superhero shows than with his father’s religion. One day, when his father tries to lead Sanjay in worship to their living room shrine, Sanjay gets lost in a daydream in which the gods of his father become superheroes like on the TV.

The very brief film is just… strange. Strange not because it pushes the boundaries or tries experimental storytelling, but strange in that it is simple and uninspired – which is the exact opposite of what you would expect from a Pixar film.

I understand that this film was meant to be an homage to the father of Sanjay Patel, who directed the short film and has also worked on numerous Pixar films in the past. I cannot speak to the emotional meaning of this film to Mr. Patel and his family, so I won’t, but as for a Pixar film, I think it was subpar.

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An Original Premise

The premise of The Good Dinosaur is one of the more original concepts I’ve seen in a movie in a while. The film follows a “What if” reality in which the alleged asteroid that killed the dinosaurs missed Earth completely. The film answers the question: What if dinosaurs had never gone extinct? In this film, dinosaurs become the dominant species of the planet, with humans becoming savage “critters”.

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The concept of dinosaurs becoming Earth’s dominant species is handled in a very realistic way, as it were. The dinosaurs are not bipedal. They don’t wear ties or drive their dino mobiles in to work. Rather, they are still dinosaurs. They have mastered the art of agriculture, herding, and farming, and they do it all in a way that seems very natural. The dinosaurs till earth with snouts, carry loads of corn on their humped backs, and move very much like a dinosaur should (according to popular scientific thought).

As I said before, the premise of the movie is original. It’s very odd to see dinosaurs farming and driving a herd of cattle, but it feels so natural that you find yourself believing that it could happen.

Beautiful Landscapes

From the very beginning of The Good Dinosaur, your breath is taken hostage by sprawling cinematic vistas.  The movie is set in midwestern North America (as far as I can tell) complete with rolling plains, grand mountains, and great, empty swaths of wilderness.

At the beginning of the film, I found myself squinting at the screen and trying to determine whether the movie was animated or whether it was some sort of animation/hybrid footage. Whatever technique was used, it was beautiful. Thankfully, the cinematic vistas were not just contained to the opening minutes of the film. Arlo’s adventure takes him to many different landscapes, each unique and each breathtaking with painstaking amounts of detail put into the animation to make it look as real as possible.

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I feel the filmmakers included some specific scenes and landscapes just to test the animators abilities to bring these scenes to life. There is one certain scene where Arlo charges through a flock of birds, causing them all to take wing, filling the screen with a multitude of flapping, white birds. The scene is beautiful and it is just one of many breathtaking shots of a beautiful part of the American continent.

Water, Water, Everywhere

While this film may get a negative review from IGN because of all the water (yes, I did go there), I found myself amazed at the water animation. Disney animators are known for studying real-life subjects for hours to correctly portray movement or emotion. For example, the animators of The Lion King had a live lion brought into their studios so they could examine how a lion moved and acted. The same, I’m sure, was done with Frozen a few years back. The film was set in a wintery wonderland and had dozens of different types of snow, with each animated to act and respond differently to character movement and interaction.

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The animators of The Good Dinosaur must have spent hours looking at water. Just like the sweeping plains and mountainous buttes I mentioned above, the water animation in this film was spot on. From the sun shimmering off of the reflective surface to seeing character’s bodies distorted beneath the water’s pristine surface, everything about the water in this film was amazing.

If this film should win just one award it should be for its amazing animation.

Simple Story, Childish Themes

As original as The Good Dinosaur is in its subject matter and premise, the story is a bit simple. Arlo is the nobby-kneed runt of a rural dinosaur family that owns a swath of farmland and honors hard work above all. Being the weakest of his siblings, Arlo quickly finds that he has a hard time proving himself to his parents. Tragedy strikes and Arlo is left all alone in the wilderness. He must learn to conquer his own fears, learn to work with his “enemy”, all in order to make it home in time for the harvest. It’s a simple enough plot, but this is a movie for children. You don’t need a complex, convoluted plot.

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Along with having a simple plot fit for children, the film is also populated with child-appropriate themes. One major theme is Arlo overcoming his fears. Arlo is a dino that is afraid of his own shadow. His fear and inability to act causes a great tragedy for his family that he blames himself for. Arlo’s greatest challenge, besides getting home, is overcoming his own fear.

Another theme that plays heavily in the movie and is important for children, is making your mark in the world. Arlo’s family has a corn silo where they mark a stone upon doing some important deed or act of hard work. Arlo is the last of his family to make his mark, but Arlo’s father stresses the importance of “making your mark” by doing something special and unique to you. That’s a lesson we should stress to children when we see this movie, make your mark by doing something great!

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There are other, lesser themes in the movie that aren’t as blatant, but are still important. Not judging a book by its cover is a repeated theme. At first glance, Arlo is a nock-kneed coward, but he grows into a confident dinosaur by the end of the film. Again, the little critter Spot may seem like a mindless savage at first, maybe even a violent enemy, but we soon learn there is much more going on beneath Spot’s shaggy head. Throughout the film, Arlo meets different dinos that seem one way and turn out to be completely different than at first thought. Maybe the best example of this is when Arlo meets the Texan T-Rexes that seem very ferocious at first, but are instrumental in getting Arlo back home and teaching him how to have confidence in himself.

Water is a repeated element in the film, both in landscape and in themes. Water is the monstrous force of nature that washes Arlo’s father away, but also provides the route back home. The water represents fear when the sky begins to downpour, but it is also present when Arlo overcomes his fears and saves Spot. Water in this film, much like in science, is the great solvent; it washes away the surface and shows what is underneath.

You Will Cry

As I get older, I find myself tearing up at more than I used to. However, I still try to play it tough and do my best not to cry in movies, especially in a public theater. The Good Dinosaur definitely pulls on your heart strings. It has some very emotional moments from beginning to the end. The end, especially, piles on these tear-jerking moments, but I had kept my eyes dry throughout the entire movie and numerous sad moments. It wasn’t until the final, end scene that the dam finally broke and big, fat tears started rolling down my face.

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I tried my hardest not to cry, but The Good Dinosaur got me in the end. It wasn’t Toy Story 3 or anything, but it still got me.

The Acting

Don’t expect any breakout voice acting performances in The Good Dinosaur movie. When I think of recent Disney movies I think of Frozen with characters that were brought to life by their voice performers (namely Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, and Josh Gad), and of Scott Adsit’s on-point performance as Baymax in Big Hero Six, or even of John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman’s performances in Wreck-It Ralph. Besides a particularly gnarled T-Rex voiced by Sam Elliot, there weren’t any memorable voices from this movie. The most memorable voicing moments of Arlo’s character was when he was screaming, which were admittedly very enjoyable and probably the most iconic sound byte from the movie.

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The Music

The Good Dinosaur‘s soundtrack was provided by Mychael and Jeff Dana, whose very short history of work includes the Stars original TV series Camelot and the movie Lakeview Terrace. The soundtrack fit the movie perfectly, going along with the midwestern feel of the movie. Scenes were filled with swelling horns and plucking violins. The soundtrack sounded wonderfully Western. The Dannas captured the feel of the movie very well with their music, providing quiet moments to pull on our heartstrings as well as grand overtures as we overlooked the great American landscapes. I’d recommend it for anyone wanting to a great Western-sounding soundtrack or just something play in the background while they read the latest Louis L’amour novel.

The Kids

Is this movie appropriate for kids? A resounding yes. It’s a Disney/Pixar film! It has important themes for children to learn and are simple enough for them to understand. There are a few suspenseful moments, but nothing the reassuring presence of a parent couldn’t quell.

The Grade

While it wasn’t as groundbreaking as Finding Nemo or Toy Story, The Good Dinosaur is just as it’s name implies: good. It won’t be an immediate classic and may not inspire any new rides or attractions at Disney theme parks, but it is a good movie for bringing families together on a couch.

I give The Good Dinosaur a grade of…

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What do you think? Have you and your family been to see this movie? What did you think of it? Where would you rank it in your Disney/Pixar list. Let me know in the comments below!

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

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