Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The Good Dinosaur

Since I recently wrote about Wakefield Cathedral Film Club's next film Jurassic World, I thought I'd choose another recent prehistoric themed picture. The Good Dinosaur is largely seen as the 'other' Pixar film from 2015, as it was released in the same year as Inside Out, more on that later I'm guessing. That being said despite Pixar having a few flops under its belt in recent years, the 'other' Pixar film is still not a damning term, especially for my generation who grew up with their films. 2015 was the first ever year Pixar released two films, and so comparisons based on that alone were bound to be made, but watching these films feels like a completely different experience.

The Good Dinosaur is in many ways a mass of contradiction. Throughout the film I enjoyed the vast, beautiful and at times photorealistic landscapes. I was amazed at how lifelike the natural surroundings looked at times, particularly in sweeping panoramic shots. This is jarring however compared to the cartoony looking dinosaur characters, as well as their goofy sounding voices and movements. At times they more resemble giraffes which I found very distracting, with the main character Arlo's movements being modelled on those of a young elephant. For the visual presentation I get the feeling the designers were bizarrely fixated on Dino from the Flintstones. There
were many times in the film where I would be taken back by a stunning landscape only to be shot down by Arlo using words like "Papa" It's truly disheartening that they made a better looking dinosaur in Rex from Toy Story, which was released twenty years ago, and that you would think someone at Pixar would have pointed this out. While the visuals has some issues the soundtrack of the film is truly masterful. The film was originally to be scored by Thomas Newman who has produced noteworthy scores in the past for films like American Beauty (1999), Wall-E (2008) and recent James Bond films Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015). There is still a hint of an American Beauty percussion based style in the end result, and Mychael and Jeff Danna's take impressed me greatly. The music genuinely kept me hooked at some points.

The film begins with an asteroid missing Earth, and jumps forward to our present day where Humans bizarrely haven't evolved yet dinosaurs have. The herbivores have developed a farming system, and somehow the English language. Our main character Arlo has two parents and two siblings, and is very much the baby of the family, easily getting scared by most things. The three siblings are brought up aiming to 'make their mark', meaning a literal mark on their crop silo, which Arlo has failed to do so far due to his fear. Following the loss of his "Papa" in a scene that loosely resembles Mufasa's fate in The Lion King (1994), Arlo finds himself lost miles away from home with the human child who unintentionally cost his Father his life . In order to survive the journey home he finds he must bond with the canine-like human. Arlo names the human 'Spot', as he behaves much like a Dog would, because this is apparently how evolution works. Spot at one point howls at the moon, which I found particularly annoying. While the film does a respectable job in attempting to unite these two characters it required too much suspension of disbelief for me to truly get behind it. Arlo as a character is constantly plagued by fear while Spot isn't, and this is what is used to draw us into believing the unity between the two, but this isn't enough. If someone who was responsible for my parents death and I was stuck with them, I would struggle to forgive them in the way Arlo does despite anything, and I don't think I'm alone in that. It simply doesn't feel logical and this is where the film lost me.

Here is where the major issue with The Good Dinosaur lies. Pixar has shown in the past that it can create compelling characters using very little dialogue, so it baffles me why they chose not to with this film. Wall-E (2008) features no dialogue between two on screen characters until 45 minutes in, and not very much after that also. This shows me that Pixar knows how to create lovable characters without a word being spoken and yet The Good Dinosaur insists on going in another direction. I was interested to find that lead Writer and Director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton is credited as an Executive Producer for this film, but then so is original head of Pixar John Lasseter, whose pictures often involve humanising characters from Toys to Bugs to Cars. I get that they probably didn't want anyone to think it was too much like their previous work, but like in Jurassic World where Owen Grady names each raptor in his control, you don't need to humanise everything. Their differences to us are what make them interesting. To my mind the end result would have been much better with a silent protagonist relying on body language to draw the viewer in.

As a minor criticism I don't really get what is 'Good' about Arlo Naive or Scared would have been more truthful. More bafflingly one of the films tagline's is "little arms big attitude", which makes even less sense as I couldn't find much attitude. Perhaps it got cut out of rewrite 47.

This film suffered from well documented "story problems", which is to be read as "quality issues" that sadly weren't addressed fully. This isn't helped by director changes and release date delays, which are often bad signs. Toy Story 2 (1999) was completely rewritten and remade from scratch despite being almost finished because Director John Lasseter felt the story didn't work, yet it still came out on its originally announced date. Lasseter has since said that this completely drained him, so in Pixars defence I can see why they would want to take their time if they felt a picture wasn't working. Many reviewers point to a specific scene where Arlo and Spot find a way to communicate the losses they have each experienced (pictured above) as a highlight, but to me this felt tacky and bolted on as a way to force these two characters together. When I watched this scene a second time it made me realise I would have enjoyed the story more if the roles were revered, if Arlo was somehow responsible for Spots parents doom. It was less like fine embroidery and more banging two pieces of wood together and hoping they stick.

Thanks to the amazing scenery and music I could never brand The Good
Dinosaur as a bad film, or even a low quality one, just a film of great technical achievement but sadly poor storytelling. Toy Story being amazing doesn't make A Bugs Life a bad film, but it still sits on the dusty end of the shelf in peoples minds when they think of Pixar greats. Inside Out being amazing doesn't make The Good Dinosaur a bad film, which is why it will rest on that shelf too. You know, the same shelf with that wheezing penguin from Toy Story 2...
Who incidentally is also better animated than Arlo.

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