Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Good Dinosaur movie review.

Just 5 months ago, Pixar came back with a vengeance. After disappointing output following Toy Story 3, Inside Out released and restored them back to the top of the animation circuit, already on its way to becoming one of the year’s defining films. Flash forward to now, and for the first time ever, Pixar has a second offering in the same year with The Good Dinosaur. Two Pixar movies in a year could only mean great things, right?

In theory, yes it could, but in practice, there was still skepticism. The Good Dinosaur, originally under the creative control of Pixar icon Bob Peterson, has had a rocky production schedule, with Peterson’s eventual removal from the project and the story being reworked under new director Peter Sohn. Not only that, but in order to accommodate the new changes, the film was pushed back from its original June 2014 release to Thanksgiving 2015, making it the first time since 2005 that a Pixar film skipped a year entirely. The question remains, did the wait pay off?

In my opinion, it did. While not in the top tier of Pixar’s outings, the end result still delivers quite nicely on family fare.

Taking place in an alternate universe where the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs missed, the film follows young Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), the youngest of a family of Apatosaurus farmers, who struggles with a crippling fear that has prevented him from earning his mark on the farm. After a terrible accident where he loses his father (Jeffrey Wright), he eventually ends up getting dragged down the river, hundreds of miles from his home. Along the way, he makes unlikely acquaintance with a feral cave boy named Spot, and the two set off together against the harsh forces of nature, developing a strong connection as they go.

Mid-production director swaps are hardly new ground for Pixar, as similar occurrences have taken place in a few previous films as well, such as Brad Bird’s eventual promotion over Jan Pinkava as director of Ratatouille, and Mark Andrews being brought on to direct major portions of Brave with Brenda Chapman. Outside of directing swaps, rocky production isn’t new territory either, as was evidenced by the hectic nine months of reworking Toy Story 2 from the ground up, leading to several employees becoming injured and stressed by the end of it all. So it’s with this knowledge that such a big decision doesn’t automatically mean we should assume the worst, which admittedly I and a lot of people did, but I think those fears are safely put to rest.

Though the hiccups of the various storytellers and rewrites can occasionally be felt, with a total of five people credited for story, Inside Out’s Meg LeFauve, receiving sole screenwriting credit, manages to bring them all together with little issue, playing its coming of age story in the style of a John Ford western. What makes the film particularly engaging is how we come to grow fond of Arlo. As the youngest of his siblings, and highly fearful of his surroundings, the film establishes a lot of relatable traits that make him an easy character to sympathize with. He’s an unsure young boy coming to grips with his place in the world, learning to cope with tragedy at a young age, and separated from his family, testing him both physically and emotionally. And when I say physically, I mean it, with poor Arlo enduring truly painful trials and bruises on his way back to home, coupled with the pure terror and trauma of the dangerous new sights, all of which the film uses effortlessly to pit us in Arlo’s mind frame, and have us rooting for him throughout.

In addition, Arlo makes for a superb double act with MVP Spot, whose character communicates through grunts and growls provided by Jack Bright. Without a single word of dialogue, Spot steals the show with his aggressive and protective personality, with every detail of his character from animation to writing likening him to a stray dog, and he relays such a wide range of emotional responses and establishes back story in such subtle and captivating ways that it becomes hard not to love the little guy. With the movie featuring a number of stretches without dialogue, it’s the bonding sequences between these two that’s where the film is at its peak. Their bond also makes great use out of comedy, namely Spot’s often clueless and silly nature, which even features some surprisingly dark comedy bits. Because of this, I do find myself wondering why the filmmakers didn’t go all the way and make the entire movie non-speaking, given how much the imagery could have projected alone, but this is still excellent writing on Pixar’s part.

The two also come across a colorful, albeit limited cast of characters along the way. The more notable of them include a family of T-Rexes with heavy Texan drawls, led by Sam Elliot’s hulking Butch, and featuring Anna Paquin and AJ Buckley as his respective children Ramsey and Nash. This trio enters and exits the picture in a somewhat small timeframe, but their presence makes for a fun and poignant presence to aid Arlo in overcoming his fear. Arlo’s actual family isn’t all that engaging on paper, but at least the film gives them each some fun and sweet moments.

Beyond that, there aren’t many other characters, but for a film of this nature, that isn’t really needed as the film aims most of its focus on the two leads overcoming their new terrain. In a welcome move, the film never feels the need to place in any pure “villains”, as the two facing the forces of Mother Nature is engaging stuff all on its own, tackling the issue of embracing nature and one’s own ear with lovely and mature results. That said, the film still manages to work in sparing and well placed obstacles for the duo, whether it be a venomous reptile that Spot defends Arlo from, or a pack of velociraptors that rustle Butch’s herd of cattle, featuring Pixar lucky charm John Ratzenberger’s shortest voice over yet. The closest the film gets to a full on villain is Steve Zahn’s Thunderclap, an unnerving and fanatical pterodactyl that was the victim of a terrible storm, and feeling that it provided for him more than it took away, has dedicated his life to following storms like a religious cult, savagely preying upon the helpless critters left incapacitated in its wake.

Outside of its story elements, The Good Dinosaur might very well be the best looking film Pixar has made to date. Pushing their animation equipment to their absolute limits, I can’t recall the number of times that I mistook environments for live action footage with characters digitally integrated into the feature. The film and photography uses a widespread environmental landscape of various temperatures and surroundings, and all of them look breathtaking. Even the character animations are among the most complex, expressive, and lifelike work that the studio has ever done, including some smaller and delightful details to go with the film’s western vibes, from Arlo’s farm feeling straight out of Legends of the Fall, to the fact that the Rexes gallop as if they ride horses. Even Mychael and Jeff Danna’s score goes along with this, for as an atypical answer to dinosaur scores the like of The Land Before Time, their music is dominated by heavy Americana and Folk atmosphere and instrumentations.

At the end of the day, The Good Dinosaur can hardly be called a perfect film like Inside Out was, but it still shouldn’t be shortchanged either. It still remains a thoroughly entertaining film, finding its strength out of the impressive two lead characters, and enrapturing the viewer on a majestic journey from beginning to end. Like many, I was disappointed by Pixar’s lackluster turnouts after Toy Story 3, but 2015 has seen them return in spectacular form, showcasing them at the very best of all of their abilities, and promising further greatness in the future.

Just so long as sequels don’t start overtaking original projects…

**** / *****

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