Pixar Animation Studios announced both Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur shortly after the release of Cars 2 in 2011. In the wake of the worst movie the studio had ever made, and their first non-Toy Story sequel, it was reassuring to see two ambitious high concepts on the schedule. Inside Out found a distinct narrative in the abstract concept of thought. The pitch for Dinosaur seemed just as promising: a revisionist history in which the comet never hit earth and dinosaurs were allowed to evolve alongside humans in the more recent future.
The intervening five years saw problems with both productions. The Good Dinosaur suffered more. Director Bob Peterson was removed. Composer Thomas Newman quit. Almost the entire voice cast was replaced late in production. Pixar closed their Canada animation branch and laid off 67 employees working on the project. The release date was changed twice. The film originally was supposed to come out Thanksgiving 2013, two whole years ago.
That struggle is apparent throughout Dinosaur, a mishmash of promising ideas that never gels into a truly satisfying story. Conceptually it remains as inspired as the original pitch. Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) is a young Apatosaurus who lives with his family on a farm in Wyoming some time during the mid-Cenozoic period. In the intervening millions of years, dinosaurs have gained the ability to speak, build, grow crops, and form basic societies. By comparison, the early humans they encounter (who still pounce around on all fours) seem distinctly animalistic. One such human, a feral child named Spot, is caught poaching the family’s corn supply. Arlo’s attempts to capture him end up propelling the two miles from home and jumpstarting a dangerous journey through dinosaur-infested Yellowstone.
On a technical level, the movie is also a major accomplishment. The possibilities are all there in the description. As someone who was a child at one point, I couldn’t help but turn giddy at the sight of a Tyrannosaurus Rex (Sam Elliott) galloping across the plains like a cowboy herding buffalo. His angled back and short arms perfectly mirror the posture of holding reins while his massive legs and tail play the horse.
The natural vistas are also a revelation. This is the most wowed I’ve been by animated landscape since Finding Nemo. The filmmakers have explained that they believe nature to be the film’s true antagonist. True to form, the storms and floods carry genuine menace. The cliffs and wilderness seem especially treacherous.
Arlo is also clearly the work of people who know animation. The runt of his litter of siblings, Arlo’s ne’er-do-well boyishness is at odds with the inhospitable climate. I don’t expect children will exit the theater exclaiming, “Arlo needed to adapt to the world in order to grow up, just like animals needed to evolve to adapt to nature!” However I’m fairly sure they will cringe as he runs from the family’s chickens, just like they will cringe when his bruised, prehistoric knees bump and buckle on the rocky crags of Yellowstone’s mountains. Somewhere deep inside they might connect the two emotions. That’s filmmaking.
And for children that might be enough. They haven’t seen enough movies yet to worry about things like novelty or originality. If every moment is compelling in some way, they’re happy. Adults, on the other hand, bring more baggage to the proceedings. They’re the ones who might be a little turned off by Dinosaur’s uneven narrative.
I’ll try to avoid making too many comparisons to that other Pixar movie, but it’s hard to watch Dinosaur’s continued reliance on Disney clichés and not remember just how complete the narrative for Inside Out felt. The emotions in that story were earned over the course of an entire film. The emotions here spring from a routine of tried-and-true archetypes.
I have nothing against stories in which a parent dies. (or two or three parents as the case may be… is it just me or is the parent death toll getting so high lately that it almost ventures into the realm of disturbing wish-fulfillment?) I don’t mind that Arlo and Spot are lost in the wilderness, an unlikely duo who must overcome their differences as they make their way back home. I’m capable of being entertained by the cavalcade of amusing side characters, be they a lovable Tyrannosaurus Rex family like the turtles from Finding Nemo or a cult of pterodactyls that resemble the hyenas from The Lion King. I’m not too jaded to be moved when a father and son bond over a field full of fireflies.
I only ask that these things spring naturally from the story. When they occur at random, with little setup or foreshadowing, I start to feel manipulated. I’m afraid the script feels like a patchwork of compromises. At the outset there is a thrilling tale of cowboy dinosaurs and a different evolutionary timeline: a fantasy world that fascinates because it mirrors our own. But while the terrain is different, the map is very very old. A boy grows up on the farm. He cannot live up to the example of his father and siblings. He is taken away from home and thrown into a dangerous, exotic place. He forms an unlikely bond with an animal stranger. He ultimately overcomes his fears in order to make his way home. Anyone who has seen more than a handful of Disney films will know what’s going to happen ten minutes ahead of time.
As a result, one of the most unique premises for a movie this year results in one of the most standard, predictable stories. While that might not hurt the film’s appeal to its target audience, I’m certain it won’t help either. Children are not incapable of sensing when something’s off. They know when a story is disjointed. They’re capable of following a story when it works, and they’re even more capable of losing interest when it doesn’t.
That is to say nothing of Pixar’s stature as the storytellers for everyone. Their movies are events precisely because the grownups get just as excited as the children. The last five years have shown just how high Pixar set the bar during their heyday—even they have trouble clearing it.
Images Courtesy of: Pixar Animation Studios