I gave utter disregard for the final infomercial after the trailers imploring me to shut-off or silence my cell phone, knowing no one else’s cinema experience would be injured as I texted away to a friend: “This is awesome; I’ve got the entire theater to myself for The Good Dinosaur.” It seemed fortuitous at the time. After all, how many children’s films have I attended, particularly Pixar flicks, that have been ruined in part by the presence of preteens and tykes? Having recently finished Jessica Jones, the quote from Kilgrave’s first reveal ran through my mind as the lights dimmed. “Children should be seen, not heard. Or better yet, neither seen nor heard.” Less than two hours later I’d be walking away fully aware that it was neither chance nor fortune that the matinee was deserted days after release.
Arlo, the titular Good Dinosaur, is an Apatosaurus, gargantuan behemoths of notorious heft and length; neither of those two adjectives are apt descriptors of the film. The tale it tells and the movie itself are both brief and bare, the latter coming in at a fleeting hundred minutes flat. As for the former, the major movements cover maybe a week at most, and a surprisingly uneventful one at that. Undoubtedly for Arlo such tedious travels must have seemed thrilling and tense compared to the trite agrarian life for which he sojourns to return, but the camera rarely focuses our attention to such, concerning itself rather with long establishing shots of it American frontier backdrop.
That strange juxtaposition of dinosaur subjects and an old west setting is one of several examples of the film mixing motifs without purpose or payoff. Part of the problem is that this world is so sparsely populated. Aside from Arlo’s solitary sect of sauropods, only a handful of other species of dinosaur flesh out the fiction, half of which are nothing but spaghetti western stereotypes and the other half of which ignore such tropes entirely. Three tyrannosaurus cowboys and four white-trash raptors hardly constitute world building. Finding Nemo this film is not.
Spot represents a second failed dichotomy, this time between the feral flintstone’s animal and human natures. All of his mannerisms are derived from canines, and Arlo treats him varyingly as a beast to slay and a pet to tame. Nevertheless, barring the ability to talk, Spot displays intelligence essentially equal to that of his master, certainly comprehending far more than any actual animal, causing the metaphor to break down entirely at times.
Such is particularly troublesome come the climax, in which Arlo releases Spot back into the wild to the care of a couple of cavemen. While Spot was never fully domesticated, because of his prior portrayal as Arlo’s pet, the scene took on the flavor of placing a puppy with a pack of wild mongrels. It betrays the seriousness of the human/canine relationship to which Arlo and Spot serve as reference, suggesting species the source of true kinship. As someone whose long-deceased boyhood dog remains a closer clan member than any sibling or extended family, I find such sentiment flagrantly false. Disney movies don’t need happy endings, and at least Old Yeller didn’t assuage its sorrow through saccharine.
Another juxtaposition less successful than the creators intended is the cartoony characters inhabiting the painterly, near-photorealistic landscapes. The picturesque environments are utterly breathtaking and the true star of the show, but Arlo and the other denizens of this world never feel like true inhabitants as such; they are the crude colorings of a kindergartener taped over a Fredrick Edwin Church instead of the refrigerator (or the trash can) where they belong.
Vocally, the one standout performance belonged to Sam Elliot, whose theropod cattle-driver steals every scene, particularly a campfire conte which answers the same question more rivetingly than Heath Ledger asking, “Do you want to know how I got these scares?”
Aside from such and select other scenes, The Good Dinosaur is largely bereft of emotional weight, at least any that hit as heavily as intended. Upon reflection, the two most emotional moments proved to be the sublime trailer for the upcoming The Little Prince, and the animated short Sanjay’s Super Team. The latter can at least be considered somewhat part of the film, and it is in no way uncommon for the shorts which accompany Disney flicks to be as good if not better than the film itself, such as Presto, Partly Cloudy, Day and Night, and most recently Lava, attached to this summer’s wonderful Inside Out.
Sanjay’s Super Team, like The Good Dinosaur, is all about juxtaposition, but the short does such far better than the featured length film. It is mostly autobiographical, contrasting director Sanjay Patel’s boyhood excitement for superheroes and Saturday morning cartoons with his devout Hindu father’s traditional religious reverence, with the former imaginatively reconciling such in a synesthesiac sequence superbly rendered.
The not-so-good Dinosaur is sadly not Pixar’s primeval past, but rather the direction the studio has long been lumbering towards; this summer’s Inside Out seems an aberration, a solitary reminder of what once made the studio beloved, but sandwiched between the such poor predecessors as Cars 2, Braid, and Monsters University, and followed by such inevitable failures as Finding Dory, Cars 3, and Coco. At least we have The Little Prince and more Lego Movies to look forward to, though I won’t know whether to feel reprieve or apprehension if such films are likewise free of pestiferous prepubescent patrons.