FILM REVIEW – THE GOOD DINOSAUR. With the voices of Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Raymond Ochoa, Steve Zahn, Sam Elliott. Written by Meg LeFauve. Directed by Peter Sohn. Rated PG for peril, action and thematic elements. 100 minutes.
After the triumphant return of Pixar with this summer’s “Inside Out,” the question was whether they could it do twice in one year. Alas, while THE GOOD DINOSAUR may satisfy those looking for family entertainment, it’s a decidedly mixed bag.
We’re in some sort of alternate universe where the dinosaurs have not only not been wiped out, but have begun farming and cattle-herding. Two things are immediately obvious. First, in terms of technique, Pixar has just upped the game in computer animation again. If you remove the cartoonish characters, the realism of the landscape they have created is absolutely breathtaking. From the leaves and flowers to the flowing water, to the rocks on the ground, it all looks real.
That the characters are cartoonish is not necessarily a bad choice. What is a bad choice is not having a coherent story to tell. Stories and characters have always been the backbone of the best Pixar films, and here it’s obvious that this was a script done by committee. Literally. While Meg LeFauve gets sole credit for the screenplay, she shares the story credit with four other writers.
The result is a movie that is all over the place. After an opening in which Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand) oversee the hatching of three eggs, we meet Arlo, the runt of the litter. He grows up (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) and is spooked by chickens, his brother, bugs… almost everything. Then in classic Disney fashion Poppa dies and Arlo is subsequently swept far from home in a flood.
At this point he is joined by a feral boy (Jack Bright), whom eventually he dubs “Spot.” The storyline becomes one of how Arlo and Spot have adventures together, rescue each other, bond, and find their way home. However the individual scenes change tone so often that it gets dizzying. There’s a scene where they eat some fermented fruit which causes what seems to be psychedelic visions. There’s a scene with a philosophical creature who seems even more afraid of everything than Arlo. There’s an encounter with a group of pterodactyls led by Thunderclap (Steve Zahn) who want to eat Spot. Later there’s a group of tyrannosauruses who are fighting rustlers who have stolen their cattle. These dino-cowboys are led by Butch (Sam Elliot), the rustlers sound like a bunch of hillbillies, and the background during the cattle drive suddenly turns into a John Ford western.
Youngsters may also find the “eat or be eaten” world of the film upsetting. Spot rips a bug’s head off to try to convince the herbivore Arlo to try it. Thunderclap devours a cute animal Arlo has rescued. And Poppa’s being swept away in a sudden deluge may rival the death of Bambi’s mother in shocking the little ones.
If it all held together, “The Good Dinosaur” would be a much better film. Instead, it’s the usual “lost ones finding their way home” story tarted up with a grab bag of plot points. Perhaps Pixar’s next movie should be called “The Golden Goose.” You know, the story of how greed for too much can end up costing you the source of your wealth?•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.