Pixar released two feature films this year: one that made me question my typical lukewarm attitude toward their output & one that confirmed my usual indifference. Inside Out was a remarkable example of effective world-building, establishing a clear, concise visualization of the abstract concept of emotion & inner conflict. It wasn’t a particularly great looking movie, but it was so committed to its high-concept premise that the flat, simplified look of its CG animation didn’t matter all that much. The Good Dinosaur, on the other hand, goes skimpy on both visual intensity and narrative & world-building. It’s not much of a surprise given the film’s years-in-the-making troubled production, but The Good Dinosaur is frustrating as a finished product, as so much of the film is hopelessly bland, but there are flashes of brilliance trapped in the muck begging to be employed in a much better film.
The most glaring shortcoming in The Good Dinosaur is in its cutesy character designed. The film’s backgrounds are hyper-realistic , an incredible feat in CG animation. Its campfires, running water, and swaying tree branches are all so tangibly real-looking that they seem like nature photography. Even small, unimportant-to-the-plot creatures like bugs, birds, and lizards are visually well-defined, fitting in remarkably well with the background work. That’s why it’s such a shame that the dinosaurs themselves, the stars of the show, are such vague, babyish cartoon nothings. I get that it probably wouldn’t have been a good idea to have hyper-realistic dinosaurs running the show & scaring the crap out of children, but surely there was a better compromise to be had between the two extremes than what was delivered.
That said, it’s not just that the dinosaurs look vague & uninteresting. It’s also that their personalities are generically human in a too-predictable, clichéd way. The couple of times in the film where dinosaurs act like wild creatures instead of civilized people are genuinely entertaining, but they’re few & far between. The film’s Dinosaurs Are People Too approach to storytelling honestly isn’t worth much more than an eyeroll or two. Its depictions of dinosaur farmers & dinosaur cowboys are exhaustingly hokey to me, barely a step above the polar bear political lobbyist Rob Schneider voices in the dire-looking Norm of the North trailers. This isn’t helped at all by the detail that human beings are feral “critters” in this dino world, a corny bit of Now That’s What I Call Irony emptiness. There are a couple dinosaurs-acting-like-dinosaurs moments in the film. A couple vicious carnivores have their time to shine & there’s a particularly . . . trippy scene where the two main characters get intoxicated from a stockpile of fermented fruit (a scene that reminds me of the documentary Animals Are People Too, funnily enough), but most of their behavior is so human that they might as well have had desk jobs in the 2010s instead of farm work 65 million years ago.
The Good Dinosaur gives off the distinct feeling of being a Pixar knockoff instead of the real deal, the same way Don Bluth productions used to feel like leftover Disney scraps a couple decades ago. The problem is that The Good Dinosaur is less Land Before Time (which told a human story, but still echoed believable dinosaur behavior) and more Rock-a-Doodle (which thought that a rooster Elvis was a kooky enough idea to carry an entire feature). The film isn’t a total shitpile. I kind of appreciated its Gravity-style plot structure where the central dinosaur is just beaten to shit by life & has to navigate a relentless gauntlet of problem solving. There are also some tear-jerking moments dealing with loss, mourning, and learning to let go, as well as a worthwhile overall message of “Sometimes you gotta get through your fear to see the beauty on the other side” that all could’ve belonged in a much better film. Unfortunately none of these moments amount to much more than 3 or 4 quick run-ins with intimidating antagonists & some familial tragedy borrowed wholesale from The Lion King.
The Good Dinosaur is ultimately of no consequence, a feature film not worth the emotional weight of its most admirable moments. It goes without saying that if you’re only going to see one Pixar movie this year you should make it Inside Out. I could probably go a step further, though, to say that if you’re going to watch two Pixar films this year, you should maybe consider watching Inside Out twice.