Film review: The Good Dinosaur

Normally Pixar sticks to releasing just one movie a year, but they gave us a second helping for Thanksgiving with The Good Dinosaur, a film that starts by asking “what if the dinosaurs weren’t wiped out by a giant rock from space?”

As I wrote back when the trailer came out, this actually wasn’t supposed to be dessert to Inside Out‘s main course, but The Good Dinosaur had substantial issues during development and thus had been significantly delayed.  In trying to get this one right, they swapped directors, retooled the story, and even replaced the cast in order to fit with the new script.  Normally that’s a big red flag for a film, but Pixar has such a fantastic track record and the trailer was so good that I went into this one with all the excitement you would expect from a guy who has “CrankyTRex” for a Twitter handle.

Unfortunately, those production problems clearly took their toll on The Good Dinosaur because it never quite comes together.  It’s an awkward mashup of two separate visions that ultimately end up stepping on each other more than anything else.

The original idea, which constitutes the bulk of the film, is something of a Western.  It features a family of apatosauruses living down on their farm, and the youngest of the bunch is a cowardly runt named Arlo who’s trying to make his mark on the world.  Yes, having had a few more million years to stick around thanks to the asteroid missing Earth, the dinosaurs have figured out basic agriculture and some limited construction, and the film is actually pretty clever about finding ways for the dinos to use their bodies to accomplish tasks for which we would use tools.

It’s not so clever about Arlo’s story though since it’s basically just the standard hero’s journey you’ve seen a million times before.  Through a series of unfortunate events, the timid long neck ends up lost in the wilderness where he’s forced to survive trials and tribulations in order to find his way to manhood.  Along the way he runs into all kinds of crazy characters, including a group of cowboy T-Rexes looking for their lost herd of beef.  One them is even voiced by Sam Elliott, and that is exactly as awesome as it sounds.

He also ends up forming a bond with a feral caveboy he appropriately names “Spot”, which is where new director Peter Sohn‘s idea takes over. He wanted the story to be more of a “boy and his dog” tale like in the trailer, but it plays out a little differently in the actual movie because of the “boy becomes a man” stuff and frankly the trailer’s version is better.  In fact if they had just added a couple more of the Arlo and Spot scenes into the trailer, they would have had a really heartwarming short to debut before Inside Out rather than a somewhat schizophrenic movie.

Of course it’s Pixar, so it looks beautiful even when the story isn’t working, and you’ll still probably want to bring tissues.  Some people have complained the dinosaurs looked too cartoony compared to the photorealistic backgrounds, but they actually complimented each other quite well.

Normally this is where I’d comment on the voice acting, but other than Sam Elliot’s signature baritone, there’s just not much to say because the characters don’t have much to say either.  Arlo probably spends more time screaming in terror than he does talking, and Spot’s entire vocabulary consists of grunts and growls.  For what it’s worth, Raymond Ochoa can scream pretty well and Jack Bright does know how to howl at the moon. John Ratzenberger shows up as always as a cattle-rustling raptor, and Steve Zahn puts in a perfunctory performance as the closest thing to a villain the movie has.  Even the score by Mychael and Jeff Danna, which for Pixar is often a character unto itself, really doesn’t stand out here.

None of those characters really seemed to hold the interest of the kids in my theater either since they talked among themselves most of the way through, and if you have little ones that don’t like thunderstorms, they’ll probably be too scared by some of the storm effects to really enjoy it.

So in a rather disappointing outing, especially given the studio behind it, The Good Dinosaur only lives up to around a three, maybe three and a half on Ed Morrissey’s HotAir scale:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

It’s not a terrible movie, but it’s certainly far from the greatness we’ve come to expect from Pixar.  If your kids really like dinosaurs, it might be worth seeing in a matinee, but otherwise feel free to wait until you can download/rent it.

The Good Dinosaur is rated PG for peril, action and thematic elements

For more of what I think about entertainment and politics, follow me on Twitter @crankytrex or check out my other writing at buzzpo.com.