Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Good Dinosaur

Dinosaurs Should Be Pleistocene and Not Heard
Bronto's/Meet the Bronto's/They're an Altered Timeline Fantasy

Disney/Pixar's The Good Dinosaur has had a troubled history. Originally intended for theater release November 27, 2013, it was only sent out this Thanksgiving, after much tinkering, the dismissal of the original creator/director, and some extensive re-working. With Pixar, that's usually not a bad thing. In the past—specifically, the excellent Ratatouille and Brave—the results of the re-working have been spectacular. 

Here, not so much.
Oh, don't get me wrong. Technically and aesthetically, there is a sizable leap in the results. The movie LOOKS spectacular. It is as if the Pixar animators plunked goofy looking dinosaurs in the middle of a "Nature" documentary—evidently the big digital break-through here is multi-layered clouds and getting them "just-so"—so impressive is the mock photo-realism of the landscapes. And landscapes are a big part of the story as they have to be traversed and conquered throughout the film.
It's just that the story isn't that great. Maybe it wasn't that good to begin with. Maybe it was "improved" and "re-thought" into a a messy goo. Whatever the reason, it's just not that fine a concept, it's just not that good an idea. From any other studio (like Dreamworks, or, god forbid, Nickolodeon) The Good Dinosaur would be a prestigious effort (if only because it wasn't going for the "laff" factor). But from Pixar, which, just this year came out with one of their best films, if not exactly in the animation department, the wise, imaginative Inside Out, this one is a disappointment. Not in the Cars 2 type of balderdash, but in the Monsters University realm.
The idea is that we're in an alternate Universe where the asteroid that struck the Earth 65 million years ago did not do so, saving the indigenous dominant life on the planet—that supposedly being dinosaurs—from extinction. After millions of years of evolution, the dinosaurs have now developed societies and language. We first meet a family of brontosauri (they might be apatosaurs for all I know, because they've been cartooned into having the look of Albert the Alligator from the old "Pogo" newspaper strips). The bronto's, being vegetarian, are farmers, and we see Poppa (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) plowing his plattes with his nose to make a new corn crop for his growing family—his wife (voiced by Frances McDormand) and their new hatchlings Libby, Buck and Arlo, the runt of the litter.
I don't know what I am, but that's probably a stegosaurus
Arlo may be the runt, but he's the one with the most potential—he, after all, hatched from the biggest egg. But he's scrawny, the smallest of the kids, and is always being picked on...by his siblings, and even by the pre-historic chickens on the farm (would they be called Jurass-chicks?). His slight nature makes him capable of only the lightest of farm-work, while his bigger brother and sister are digging and irrigating and irritating each while other doing so. Arlo's good for moving sticks. And moping. And being afraid of...just about everything.
This being "Little Dino on the Prairie," the only way for Arlo to grow as a character is to leave home and get stuck in his own adventure, but that's not going to happen unless disaster strikes. When it does, leaving Arlo alone in the wilderness, he must learn to deal with the greater world and its natural and unnatural dangers. It's a bit like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin-back" but with a lead character who doesn't exhibit much will, which is, frankly, not very interesting. "Huck" is capable, but directionless with no moral compass. Arlo has no compass, either, but he's never needed one because he's quite incapable of surviving on his own. If there's going to be a movie at all—besides 90 minutes of dino-bones bleaching in the sun—this "Huck" needs a mentor. He needs a "Jim."
 "Jim" comes in the form of a lost human child that Arlo dubs "Spot" and that immediately establishes the dynamic—"Spot" is the pet, but, at the same time, he is also more capable than Arlo and is someone that Arlo can learn from and, simultaneously, be responsible for.  
This makes The Good Dinosaur much more than a creationist's validation—altered timeline, people, remember—but it also makes it the flip-side of "The Flintstones" (that other creationists' validation) where the lizards are the dominant species and the humans are the co-habitant workers ("Eh, it's a living...")—"The Flintstones" once removed. Where the story is at its wisest is the infrastructure, the skeleton of the story. The dinosaurs carve out their little corners of the world as to their natures—as I mentioned before the brontos, being vegetarians, are low-impact farmers. But, it goes beyond that as dis[played by the limited number of other dino-types Arlo meets on his journey home: the Tyrannosauri Rex, being meat eaters, are ranchers (and when they're about the film takes a decidedly "western" turn—"Papa" T-Rex, Butch, is voiced inimitably by Sam Elliott); the pterodactyls (the head of whom is voiced by Steve Zahn, as a messianic cult leader) are scavengers, picking the bones of any carcass—alive or dead—they can find.
The VERY old West: T-Rex's 'round the camp-fire; 'dactyls acting like rustlers
That part is entertaining-and shows the potential of the story showing what might have happened if dinosaurs ruled the Earth. But the rest of it is less compelling. The pterodactyls are a constant threat and they wear out their welcome quickly. One finds oneself drifting off, admiring the scenery, which is not what you want to do in an animated movie, or a movie about dinosaurs. You want to say "grow up, already" to Arlo, but the best the filmmakers can come up with is a variation of "there's no place like home." But, the lesson is learned more in wanting to leave the theater and be home, rather than in the telling of the tale.
And, there's something else that bugs me: a lot is made of the concept of "family"—at one point, Arlo teaches Spot about it and how important it is and why he mopes because he's away from "the herd" (which makes me think that a really good animated film could be made of the dynamics of elephants rather than dinosaurs). One could make a good case for going the "Huck Finn" route of embracing of the opening of the closed circle Arlo uses to illustrate the "family" concept and accept a not-one-of-your-kind," such a non-lizard like Spot into the fold. There's a good lesson there, a universal one—Twain published his in 1884—and any parallels making the dinosaurs less prone to tribalism than the human inheritors of the Earth might have been a good contrast and object lesson to those familiar with how things are.
But, no, the movie doesn't go there, replacing that lesson with a "you go your way and I'll go mine" ending that only encourages segregation of the different. That left me scowling and thinking Pixar's dinosaurs were no better than us in our "you're okay as long as you're in your place" prejudices. "There goes the neighborhood" and NIMBY-ism are just as at home in the domiciles of this parallel Universe, and left me more than happy that the dinosaurs became extinct, if this is how they evolved. If only xenophobia and tribalism had gone extinct, too.
Arlo, like the story, is stretched a little thin.
Maybe I'm expecting too much deep-tissue philosophy from a cartoon (although I don't think so). But, I do expect more from Pixar, which for the last couple of decades have been expanding my mind, not only with movie-making and story-telling techniques, but also in the concepts that they employed those methods to tell. The Good Dinosaur is a little narrow-minded in that regard. Maybe they'll find their way back on track with Finding Dory.

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