You may recall in my review for Cars 2 that I mentioned how it was the first film in PIXAR’s repertoire that was considered a failure, in that it wasn’t a huge success at the Box Office. At the time, and for the several years that followed, it was seen as the worst film that the studio had ever produced – though I believe this reputation to be undeserved. The next few of PIXAR’s projects fared better, but in late 2015 they would release their first official Box Office failure- The Good Dinosaur. It’s important to note here just how much the studio usually earns in order to understand how abnormal The Good Dinosaur was. The two previous films, Inside Out and Monsters University, raked in $858 million and $743 million respectively, while their next film Finding Dory made just short of $1 billion. In contrast, The Good Dinosaur made around $332 million, which coupled with the roughly $350 million cost of production and marketing, put the studio at a loss- the first, and currently only, in their history. This is unfortunate and came as a shock to me while I was conducting my research, but in retrospect, I maybe shouldn’t have expected a huge profit to start with. This isn’t the film’s fault, and I’ll get to that, but first I feel we should go over the film itself.
We follow Arlo the dinosaur as he travels over harsh terrain in order to return home to his family. Along the way he encounters faces that are friendly, some that are not so friendly, and befriends a wild human that he names Spot. The main premise here is that the asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs 75 million years ago missed, which has allowed dinosaurs to evolve alongside the human race. Arlo, his brother, sister and parents are farmers who have adapted to using their bodies as farm equipment. Their sturdy heads plough the field, their colossal tails make for effective axes and their mouths are capable of holding enough water to spray an entire field of crops, but this accounts for 20 minutes of the 94 minute film. I think that it would have been really interesting to see a whole community of different dinosaurs with different jobs and perhaps how those skills develop over the centuries, but instead we get to witness Arlo travelling. It’s not a bad premise, and I am definitely fond of the relationship that Arlo develops with Spot, but I get this feeling that I’ve seen it all before. In essence, I think The Good Dinosaur’s biggest issue is that it lacks in new ideas. Early PIXAR films were known for their groundbreaking CGI, and all 15 of their previous entries are either a new premise or a new exploration of an old premise. This film feels like a reel of all the best parts from those films. You’ll find the “unexpected friends” trope in Toy Story, the “beautiful landscape” aspect in Brave and the “dead parent” trope in Finding Nemo. These are not bad aspects in and of themselves but this is the 16th PIXAR film in 20 years, so it needs something special of its own.
The plot also does not feel particularly coherent. There is a general through plot, with Arlo attempting to return home, but the events in this film don’t take place in any particular order. These scenes individually are rather fun, with the T-Rex ranchers being a particular highlight, but they all feel removed from each other. The T-Rex ranchers have an issue and Arlo helps. The hippie dinosaur wants to keep Spot for himself but that resolves itself. Even the storm-chasers, who appear twice, don’t seem to have a lasting impact on Arlo, but this is not the film’s fault. As I researched, I discovered a troubled production that I hadn’t been hyper-aware of at the time. According to reports, The Good Dinosaur was to be a story akin to Billy Elliot where Arlo is an outcast within his own community. This version of the story is more like what I would have expected to see, but by 2014 the entire plot had been essentially re-written to make “nature” the main antagonist because it was felt the other dinosaurs were becoming too unlikable. As someone who is very open about their thoughts on how “studio meddling” should be kept to a minimum, I find this kind of infuriating. The Good Dinosaur is enjoyable, but it’s clear to me that it was treated extremely poorly behind the scenes. It could have been great.
At the end of the day, the film itself is enjoyable. The CGI is the most gorgeous that PIXAR has ever done and is close to photo-realistic. You don’t have to pay a huge amount of attention to notice the water droplets falling from the leaves or the dew sitting on the rocks. This puts it apart from the usually cartoon-ish style of the studio and so is relatively groundbreaking for the industry. I’m also a fan of the characters, including Arlo himself. The T-Rex ranchers are rather charming and the storm-chasers are genuinely close to terrifying, but perhaps my favourite aspect is the overall message, At its core, The Good Dinosaur is about addressing your fears and using them to motivate you. Fear is just another emotion, and one that we don’t need to ignore, which is par for the course when it comes to PIXAR. They have always prided themselves on challenging children with their work and with not speaking down to them, which is something a feel certain areas of Hollywood could do with learning. The Good Dinosaur may be an average film but it’s still worth checking out for yourself.
Until Next Time…