Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Great Dinosaur: Pixar Does It Again

The following review contains SPOILERS!

Twenty years after releasing their first full-length feature, Toy Story, Pixar continues to deliver in the realm of the long-form animated film. Their latest, The Good Dinosaur, is another worthy addition to their impressive library...

The Good Dinosaur is probably going to be one of the studio's more divisive films, as evidenced by the reviews it has been getting. I can see why in some ways. The Good Dinosaur's biggest problem is that it's a Pixar film, and since Pixar made 11 (or 9) critical smashes in a row for a good 15 years, way too much is expected of them. While some people, like myself, don't fret when they make a solid good film that doesn't move mountains like Inside Out did, a ton of other people freak out. The studio is dead, the studio betrayed them, how dare they make a not-so-perfect movie?

The prehistoric picture also has the misfortune of being the Pixar feature to follow Inside Out, the very Pixar film that gets the Internet seal of approval, because it's 15-out-of-10 perfect and is the very feature that's super ambitious. The Good Dinosaur on the other hand is ambitious in other ways, I think. It's not a feature whose plot redefines the animated family film, nor does it redefine cinema. I don't think Pixar should make something Inside Out-esque out of every feature, it's impossible. They aren't gods of perfection, they aren't the world's greatest studio...

But this isn't a rant about why Pixar's post-Cars 2 detractors should be less harsh and a little more understanding, this is about their latest film...

One thing that struck me about The Good Dinosaur was how it was structured. Critics and viewers have noted that the picture is too simplistic, it's lacking, it's on the lower end of the Pixar totem pole with A Bug's Life and Cars... What's the story? It's seemingly very simple and lacking on the surface.

In this alternate world where the asteroid never wiped out the dinosaurs, the giants became civilized. A family of apatosaurs live on a farm up by three claw-tooth shaped mountains. Young apatosaur Arlo is smaller than his siblings, weaker than his siblings, and is afraid of everything. He wants to "make his mark", to get his family's full approval, he wants to do that great big thing that his siblings have done. Arlo's failure to stop a pest, a little human boy, from eating all the chicken feed results in his understanding father - Henry - dying, and when attempting to recapture the pest, Arlo becomes separated from his family, and they absolutely need Henry to survive the oncoming winter.

Lost and alone, Arlo finds himself having to team up with the little boy after he fends off a threat. Little by little they form a friendship, and meet different dinosaurs on their trip back home. During the journey, Arlo little by little begins to face his fears, and that takes quite some time. So yes, it does sound like a very "nothing" kind of picture. A fearful dinosaur has to go on a journey that changes him and improves his life.

People tend to remark that A Bug's Life, Cars, Brave, and Monsters University are also "nothing" pictures as well. But are they really?

I'm a defender of those films, I think there's more to them than people give them credit for. I don't think Good Dinosaur is a "nothing" picture, either. Its ambitions are there, but they aren't front and center. Films like Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Inside Out let you know up front that they are trying to do something different and possibly break some new ground. The Good Dinosaur aims to tell a straightforward story, and it's almost refreshing in a day and age where animated features have to be "complex" or this or that in order to pass the test. The Good Dinosaur is very much like... A Walt Disney film...

How so?

In the recent years, I've seen all these articles and think pieces on modern animated features. Some of them, I feel, walk into a giant tiger trap. They always insert some kind of comment about how the animated features of the past (read: films made before Disney's Renaissance) were somehow inferior to modern films, or how they weren't "adult" or "complex" enough. I already had a field day with those articles with a "think piece" of my own, because I firmly believe that Walt Disney and his mastermind crew weren't coasting with their animated features. Walt contributions to animation were so much more than just "he made the first animated feature" (even though he actually didn't) and "he put animation on the map"... No, Walt and his crew made masterpieces, they didn't just make pretty-looking animated features. They made films that don't get their due in these "editorials". These films also seemed very simple and plain on the surface, but underneath the stories were themes, complexity, heart, a wide range of emotions, the whole shebang...

Not all of them were the greatest, not all of them were on the level of Pinocchio and Bambi, but even with features like Peter Pan or The Jungle Book, something was still there. Something more...

I feel The Good Dinosaur, like those other so-called "lesser" Pixar films, is no different. The story is told with sincerity, the characters are appealing and likable, they have personalities, and the world they inhabit is compelling. Nature is very much a character here, and you can feel its presence throughout the film, making it similar to Walt's Bambi and Pixar's own Finding Nemo. The environment is often harsh, and is often the biggest threat to both Arlo and Spot. Arlo's conflict alone strengthens the minimal storyline, along with his friendship with Spot. The filmmakers wisely use few words to tell their story, instead they use imagery much like they did with WALL-E's first act and Up's first ten minutes. That's the same way Walt and his crew worked, too. Out of all the classic Disney animated features, The Good Dinosaur reminds me of Bambi. The North American forest setting, in all its gorgeous photoreal glory, more than helps.

The character design, much like the story itself, has proven to be divisive, and it's been that way since the day the trailers surfaced. These are very cartoony dinosaurs in a photoreal setting, but that contrast is one of the film's unique qualities. In today's CG world, there's this push for realism, and Pixar themselves are indeed guilty as charged of going that direction. That being said, having these very unrealistic-looking creatures in the middle of this hyper-real film is almost experimental in a way, if not a bit rebellious. As much as I respect the work of all the artists who make these films, I'd rather see CG go in different directions, as I think going "too real" could go against what animation should be. That's a debate for another day, but thankfully The Good Dinosaur justifies its overall look and I myself am a fan of the character designs. They won't appeal to everybody, that's for sure, but it was an interesting choice nonetheless.

What bolsters The Good Dinosaur's storytelling is the atmosphere. Cinematography is an element that's often overlooked in animation, maybe because a real-life camera isn't used to make these features, but that doesn't mean that the way an animated picture is shot and conceived should be ignored. Pete Sohn shows that he can indeed direct, as The Good Dinosaur mesmerizes with wonderful shots of the wilderness, and shots that bring out a quiet intimacy that's lacking in many American-made animated features. Mychael Danna and his brother Jeff Danna supply a lush score that brings more life to the visuals and the mostly dialogue-free script.

Again, the film is a visceral work of storytelling, one that doesn't need lots of talking. That's not necessarily groundbreaking for a family film - animated or not - but it is welcome in a day and age where movies talk, talk, talk. Again, the new masters at Pixar take it from the past masters of Walt Disney Productions. Walt's influence still shines, and why do you think that is? If his films weren't all that special or "adult" or "complex", why are the qualities that made the studio's features such classics show up in modern animated films like this?

Then of course, there's the colorful assortment of eccentric characters that Arlo and Spot meet on their journey, from a "pet collector" styracosaurus to religious fanatic pterodactyls to rancher T-rexes. These characters not only add to the narrative and in some instances add some balanced comic relief, they also bring more world-building to the film's already cool "what if?" setting. I found it neat that there would be some dinos that saw storms as godly things that change lives, I liked the idea of dinosaurs having human jobs. The humor works off of these characters' personalities as well, it almost makes Good Dinosaur something of a road film, much like Finding Nemo.

When the gang meet the T-rex trio, the movie begins to morph into a Western of sorts. The music and staging start to evoke that feel as well. This is another thing I loved about the film, and it's an element that I'm sure will throw many viewers off, the movie is weird and a little oddball in its own unique way. This is another reason why I can't say this is an unambitious, ho-hum movie. You've got a world where dinos never went extinct, that's already pretty interesting. In this world, dinos are civilized and have human jobs, so what kind of dinos do we come across towards the end of the picture? Cowboy T-rexes! To some, that sounds stupid. To me, that sounds pretty cool. I like being hit with the unexpected and unconventional, but the big question is... Does it work?

The Western portion of the picture is a delight, with some good action, a nice Wild West vibe, and some pretty good character development. The T-rex trio are probably my favorite characters, if not the pet collector. At this point in the film, we really get to see Arlo grow, something he really didn't do early on in the picture. Once he conquers his fears or at least learns how to face them, his adventure becomes all the more thrilling, leading to a pretty exciting third act where he has to save Spot from the pterodactyls... Amidst a storm that's much like the one that took his father's life.

What was also refreshing was that the ending didn't have some big epilogue, it was very to-the-point. Arlo comes home, he's a better dinosaur now, that's that. The heart of the picture not only comes from Arlo's quest to become a "good" dinosaur, it also comes from the fact that both Arlo and Spot have lost someone in their lives. Spot's parents are dead, as illustrated beautifully in a scene where he and Arlo rest by the river. At the end of the picture, he is taken in by a caveman family, but hesitates to go because he'll have to say a classic tearjerker Disney/Pixar-esque goodbye to Arlo. Yes, it sounds cliche and been there-done that, but it works once again.

I go by Roger Ebert's line of thinking when it comes to a film like this. "It's not what it's about, but how it is about it." The Pixar films that get the disapproval stamp for being "unoriginal" work for me because they still work wonders with what they've got. A Bug's Life may be a bit too close to things like The Magnificent Seven and ¡Three Amigos!, but the way they tell the story in that movie is what matters to me. The same goes for Cars, Brave, Monsters University. If the storytelling and character work is great, I don't care if it's too similar to something else. When something is a little derivative and does little with what it has, then I have an issue. A lot of recent animated films, I think, do just that. Not The Good Dinosaur, though...

The Good Dinosaur may not do it for some, and that's okay. Sometimes I think a divisive film is fascinating in its own way, and when Pixar makes a film like that, I don't see "the death of the studio"... No, I see a studio that's growing, and possibly going through some growing pains, like any studio or filmmaker does. Put me in the "loved it" camp, The Good Dinosaur more than did it for me. What I saw was a mesmerizing, epic, and sometimes oddball adventure/Western that was about dinosaurs... Sounds practically Pixar in every way.

Lastly, I'd like to talk about the accompanying short, Sanjay's Super Team.

A personal, autobiographical film for director/Pixarian Sanjay Patel, the short mixes everything together into a seamless, perfect blend. It takes the director's memories and personality, and marries them to a daydream fantasy that's action-packed, psychedelic, out-there, and colorful. The change of animation styles is really cool, and even better... The short is silent! It's also a much-needed animated film that has people of color starring in it, and one that explores religion to some extent.

This is the best Pixar short since Day & Night. It's a real treat.

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