Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Good Dinosaur

Well, it's Pixar, so I feel contractually obligated to love it. Except that, honestly, I didn't. Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad movie by any stretch. But it failed to live up to the bar set by previous Pixar films. The plot is predictable, the beats coming exactly where and how you expect. The characters are well done, but surprisingly thin. The setting seems to go to a lot of effort to support a wonderful concept (dinosaur protagonist, human pet) that is then only half-heartedly explored.

And yet, I would totally watch it again. Because, familiar and well-worn as it is, it is exploiting formulas that work. Also, this is clearly a movie where the focus landed on the technical achievements. The animation was detailed, realistic (in some instances photo-realistic), and indescribably beautiful.

The trailers do a fairly poor job of describing the actual plot, so let me lay it out for you. The asteroid that should have killed off the dinosaurs didn't. So dinosaurs continued to evolve, becoming basically people (yet without changing their basic shape, so they don't have, oh, hands). One day, a young dinosaur is born. He is the runt of the family, a general screw-up, and afraid of everything. Naturally, he is our protagonist, Arlo.

The family are good, solid, Midwestern farmers. Poppa dinosaur sounds remarkably like the conductor of the Walt Disney Railroad. In the year in which Arlo is ready to come of age (because, hey, coming of age tale), some bad things happen (no spoilers). Arlo ends up getting separated from his family, and must find his way home. Along the way, he finds and befriends Spot, a similarly bereft human (who is basically a very intelligent dog who can climb very well). He meets strangers, battles nature, and confronts his fears. Valuable lessons are learned, maturity is gained, and the boy becomes a man. Hooray!

This movie does not have anywhere close to the emotional impact of Toy Story, Up, or Inside Out. It also lacks the sly humor of Incredibles or Cars. It is, in short, a kids movie. Both the scenery (an American wilderness) and the set-up (a mis-matched pair on a journey) reminded me strongly of Brother Bear. And while the messages of the two films are wildly different, I can't shake the feeling that they are cut from the same cloth.

I will say that the characters we meet along the way are interesting, if a bit stock. The weird old hermit Styracosaurus is fun, if only to see how he catalogs his fears. The pteranodons who "follow the storm" are suitably creepy. And Sam Elliot delivers a great performance as a T Rex cowboy. (Interestingly, these T Rexes run differently, making them look like people riding horses. It was a neat, subtle visual.)

Should I do my feminism critique on a kids movie? This is a question I haven't gotten a comfortable answer to yet. But, let's look at it. Honestly, this movie fails. There are three female characters (unless one of the pteranodons is female, I wasn't sure): the typical mother, the typical sister, and the daughter T Rex. None of them are even remotely interesting, nor do they stray at all from the stereotypes. Technically the movie passes the Bechdel Test, in that there is a scene with the mother and daughter talking. But it's really pushing the technicality.

I do feel the need to take a moment to really praise the short at the beginning of the movie. Sanjay's Super Team is absolutely fantastic in every way. It is clearly a personal tale. There is a young boy who is obsessed with cartoon superheroes. His father is attempting to get him to pay respect to the Hindu gods. In a glorious sequence of discovery, Sanjay realizes that the gods are superheroes themselves. He gains an instant appreciation of the mythology, and forges a nice link with his father. It is really, really well done.

My summary is that this is a Pixar movie that you can wait on. You should see it, and see it on the biggest, highest definition screen you can manage. Because it is gorgeous. But there is nothing here that will make this movie a classic or a cultural touchstone that you need to see.

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