The really wild bunch…
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” was a phrase the late Pixar co-founder Steve Jobs was fond of, and it could almost be a maxim for The Good Dinosaur. 2015 marks the first time two Pixar films have been released in one year, and in a lot of respects, this second effort couldn't be more different from summer’s Inside Out.
While the first 2015 Pixar film out of the gate gloried in its complexity, personifying emotions and making tweenage brain processes of a piece with the action, The Good Dinosaur – as the title hints – feels at heart like a child’s picture book, from the bright, colourful characters, to the simple linear plot.
That comparison isn’t intended as an insult; this is a rich and rewarding family film. That it doesn’t quite reach Pixar’s highest standards for invention and storytelling verve is unfortunately exacerbated by its proximity to the insta-masterpiece released earlier this year.
The fact that two Pixar films ended up being released in the same year is down to well-documented production problems: The Good Dinosaur was postponed when original co-director Bob Peterson was moved to a different project, leaving Peter Sohn (director of short Partly Cloudy) solely at the helm.
The film that’s been salvaged kicks off 65 million years ago, with the asteroid destined to destroy Earth narrowly missing, meaning that some millions of years later, humans and dinosaurs co-exist.
As the story proper begins, dino-parents Momma (Frances McDormand) and Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) raise three kids on their farm. Gangly Arlo (voiced by Jack McGraw, and later, when he’s a little older, by Raymond Ochoa) is the runt of the litter, struggling to live up to his father’s expectations.
Oddly, the family are farmers, ploughing fields and tending to crops, but this particular concept of industrial dinosaurs isn't really explored much after tragedy strikes and Arlo finds himself lost in the wilderness, with only a feral human child named Spot for company. Maybe the idea was played down as part of the behind-the-scenes shake-up, as none of the other dinosaurs Arlo encounters on his journey have evolved to use machinery.
A four-legged, long-necked klutz, Arlo is ostensibly an Apatosaurus, but that sort of information isn't offered up readily. The filmmakers might earn a few science points for giving some Velociraptor-like beasts feathers, but it’s likely that these dinosaurs will simply be classified as ‘the green one’, ‘the funny one’, ‘the scary one’, as opposed to any technical genus. It feels like a confident, conscious decision, rather than a lack of research (although as is always the case, the food chain is glossed over).
The bold hues of the prehistoric creatures only stand to make the mountainous backdrops all the more stunning. Paying homage to the western with lush ranges and treacherous rivers (even some cattle herding), the scenery is among the most beautiful to ever spring from a computer, and the rain is so gorgeously executed you can practically smell it.
That landscape certainly gives Arlo a rough time of it – battered, bruised and tormented, he’s one of the more put-upon animated heroes of recent times, and some of the rival species he comes across could prove a touch too scary for the youngest viewers. One scene, in which a pack of helpers turn threatening on a dime is genuinely tense. There’s also a nice balance of adult-friendly gags (fermented berries! Paranoid triceratops!) thrown in with the visual humour, while pop-culture references are pretty much absent.
Where TGD really comes into its own is in Arlo’s interactions with Spot. Sohn has always been upfront about this being a ‘boy and his dog’ story, with the killer Pixar twist here being that the human is the dog. Arlo and Spot form the customary road-tripping odd couple that’s become as much as mark of Pixar as the Luxo lamp.
While Arlo will no doubt sell more merchandise, Spot is an incredible creation, skittish, snarling, scrambling around on all fours. The inevitable relationship that develops between the two has real heart, and will have you feigning grit in your eye more than once. In one of the finest moments, Sohn musters more emotion with stick figures and dirt than lesser animations manage in a whole movie.
Certain flaws keep The Good Dinosaur from earning a spot on the Pixar podium. For all the scares thrown in en route, it never really feels that Arlo is ever that far away from home. The parental figures have a tendency to talk in platitudes, and the human/prehistoric creatures don’t feel as fresh as some other Pixar creations; this territory won't feel entirely unfamiliar to anyone who's seen Ice Age or The Croods. But for a film of uncomplicated pleasures, there's much to delight in.