Are beautiful but undercooked stories like 'The Good Dinosaur' the new normal for Pixar?
The Good Dinosaur Walt Disney Studios
Director: Peter Sohn
Screenplay: Meg LeFauve
Starring: The voices of Raymond Ochoa, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Jack Bright, Jack McGraw, Sam Elliott, Steve Zahn and Anna Paquin
Rated PG / 1 hour, 33 minutes
November 25, 2015
(out of four)
Pixar is Pixar because it doesn't tell trite and easy stories like The Good Dinosaur. Instead it makes deceptively simple stories blossom into wonderfully complex ones. And yet here we are.
Pixar is also Pixar because, even when it makes a movie as strangely underwhelming as The Good Dinosaur, there's still so much to like about it. And so, here we are, with a frustrating disappointment that nonetheless also represents some of the highest level of craft that exists in the industry.
"Story first" has always been standard Pixar operating procedure, so let's go ahead and follow suit and begin there. Which is just as well, because the story is ultimately the sticking point with this movie.
No doubt there's a much more interesting story to be told - or lots of them - behind the scenes regarding the making of this movie. In fact, even what minimal information we've been able to see for ourselves - not to mention what has leaked out here and there - has been revealing. The director was replaced. Almost the entire voice cast was replaced. The story was re-done. The release date was pushed back. (Twice.) And the final result is ... this? This hackneyed coming-of-age arc with sporadic fits of inspiration?
It's not like Pixar hasn't dealt with behind-the-scenes chaos before. It's happened plenty - with Toy Story 2, most famously. And Ratatouille was completely re-worked once Brad Bird took over. Those two turned out splendidly.
But, while there's no need to speculate or make grand pronouncements or assumptions about the Pixar process in recent years (and on this project in particular), the recent pattern this film exemplifies at least suggests the studio isn't as good at what it does as it used to be.
I realize that I'm saying this mere months after awarding four stars to Pete Docter's great Inside Out, which ranks as one of the best things Pixar has ever done and will undoubtedly finds its way onto my top-10 list for the year. But there's reason to believe it's an outlier. Since Toy Story 3 delivered the studio its greatest financial success (and its second Best Picture nomination), it has released five movies - one stone-cold classic (see above), one genuinely bad movie (Cars 2) and three mixed-bag efforts with real and prominent story problems.
The story problem with The Good Dinosaur is that there really isn't much of one. There's an outline for a story, and events that take place within it. But as far as the beginning-to-end arc goes - the purpose, the message, the lesson, the transformation of the main character - it's strikingly banal. There's just not much there. Going back to the drawing board to simplify, simplify, simplify is one thing, but this one's been simplified into virtually nothing.
We meet a family of dinosaurs. (I've discovered through the wonders of the Internet that they are Apatosauruses. Terrific.) There's a mama dinosaur and a papa dinosaur and three li'l baby dinosaurs. (You'll forgive the childlike affect of my plot description; I'm only trying to fit my voice to the material appropriately.) The first two, Buck and Libby, are normal and strong from the moment they burst out of the egg. But the third one is where our story will focus - Arlo, the runt of the litter. (Are you rolling your eyes yet?)
The five of them make a happy family of dinosaur farmers, but over the early years of Arlo's life, he struggles to pull his weight, especially compared to his brother and sister. Despite this, his mother Ida (Frances McDormand) and father Henry (Jeffrey Wright) are endlessly patient with him.
Early on, as the family is stocking up on corn (which they keep in a large silo made of rocks), the film introduces its clunkiest, most obvious device. Henry completes a major task, and as a reward, gets to stamp his footprint onto the outside wall of the silo. This is called, in the film's literal-minded vernacular, "making your mark." In the scenes that follow, Ida gets to do the same, and then the two older children. Only Arlo's footprint remains missing, which means we know exactly how the movie will end.
I'm not knocking the film for being predictable - most movies are - but for the ham-handed way it telegraphs itself. And for what amounts to such a ridiculously simple symbolic cue. This is Saturday morning cartoon stuff.
The story that ensues - the one that will lead inexorably to Arlo making his own mark on the side of that silo - is your garden-variety coming-of-age journey. Father dies, Arlo gets lost, and somehow has to find his way back while meeting eccentric strangers along the way. Oh, and he bonds with a small, feral human child.
It's nice enough, I suppose - but only just. It plays out episodically, and so it comes alive in specific scenes and moments (often with characters that I wish we could have spent more time with instead of our dull protagonist). For that matter, everything that's going on outside the central narrative is more interesting. What emerges stylistically is a full-fledged Western, complete with open plains and prairies and outlaws and wise loners. And needless to say, it's gorgeously rendered by the animators under the stewardship of director Peter Sohn (who replaced original helmer Bob Peterson).
I realize that most of this review reads fairly negatively, and there's reason for that - it's not that the movie is bad, per se, but that the areas in which it falls short are alarming, even shocking, in how badly they fall short. Its areas of strength are merely expected of Pixar at this point. You see a Bruce Lee movie and you expect to see great martial-arts. You see a Pixar movie and you expect to see beautiful animation. Ultimately, in both cases, the movies have to stand up to scrutiny elsewhere. The Good Dinosaur can be judged somewhat harshly precisely because Pixar has set a high standard, and this movie fails to live up to that - specifically in the area that has been most important to the company. Ultimately, the muted affection for this movie is a compliment to the quality these filmmakers have established. Let's just hope beautiful but flawed, half-baked stories like this and Brave and Monsters University aren't officially the norm.