Review: ‘The Good Dinosaur’ is beautiful, sweet and mostly predictable

25 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘The Good Dinosaur’ review: Pixar’s latest prehistoric fun for the whole family.

One of the constant accolades Pixar receives about its movies is that they’re not made just for kids. “The Good Dinosaur” is Pixar’s most trippy and tripped-up film: a wayward tale, uncertain of its steps, about a Gumby-green young dinosaur lost in prehistoric forests that are rendered in lushly sensory detail and populated by bug-eyed animations.As the 15th feature from Pixar Animation Studios, The Good Dinosaur is a good movie for young audiences — and for parents who want to share a prehistoric moral fable with their children.It’s a rumble in the playground with the popular kid (Pixar) competing against itself for the first time with two contenders, the comeback kid (DreamWorks Animation) scoring a hit with ‘Home’ and the new student (‘Peanuts’) suddenly popular.

This is meant as a compliment: While they’re animated and appeal to children, their emotional and thematic sophistication also makes them satisfying to grownups—maybe even more so. A young Apatosaurus named Arlo, voiced by Raymond Ochoa, wanders far from the family farm and bonds with a speechless hominid he names Spot (growled by Jack Bright) while finding his way home. That includes the notion that the giant meteorite which hit Earth 65 million years ago, leading to the mass extinction of large dinosaurs, actually missed instead. When Disney-Pixar head honcho John Lasseter decided to reroute the narrative and the approach, Sohn found himself going solo on the project in 2013; well, solo but not quite alone. “The support system at Pixar gives you a kind of confidence to attempt different things,” says Sohn who was in Toronto promoting the movie. “They were all there from the beginning until the end.” What Sohn, Lasseter and friends came up with is a yearning adventure set in an imaginary pre-historic world in which dinosaurs escape extinction and co-exist with humans on earth.

Sure, the Ice Age flicks mostly serve as babysitting tools for exhausted parents, but a good kid’s movie can do more than just be a shiny, flashy distraction to keep tykes occupied—even if they’re not as complex or as witty as, say, Toy Story. That said, is very obviously a movie made for little-kids, pitching its life lessons in a way that, at first, feels very alienating for anybody over the age of, say, 17. Swept far down a river, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), a timid apatosaurus runt born to a family of farming dinosaurs, attempts to trek home with a young caveman companion Spot (Jack Bright). Well, according to writer/director Peter Sohn and a quartet of co-writers including Meg LeFauve (who also worked on Inside Out), you get a situation in which plant-eating dinosaurs invent agriculture while proto-humans are still hunting and gathering.

Together, the unlikely duo – “An odd variation on a boy (Arlo) and his dog (Spot),” says Sohn – escape aggressive predators and violent storms in their quest to find the safe haven of returning to Arlo’s familiar territory. Among them are a 3D version of the iconic Peanuts comic strip, a typically askew Charlie Kaufman-penned stop-motion dark comedy and even the globally recognized Shaun, the adventurous sheep from Aardman Animations’ stable. This isn’t an emotional blitzkrieg like Inside Out or a grandly ambitious effort such as Wall-E but, I wouldn’t be shocked if, 15 years from now, a generation of budding film-lovers points to as one of their formative childhood viewing experiences.

Meanwhile, director Peter Sohn’s movie also contains one sequence of sheer animation genius: Using few words and only the most basic visual clues, the two lead characters share a profound moment of grieving for lost parents. This sequence reminds us that, at their best, Pixar animations can plumb the depth of the human experience even when non-human animals, toys or other creatures are involved. The screenplay, by Meg LeFauve from a story conceived by Bob Peterson (who was replaced as director by Sohn, a Pixar veteran making his feature debut), is actually set in a parallel time. This fits nicely with Disney’s boys-and-beasts theme for the coming year, which includes a live-action remake of the partially animated Pete’s Dragon (1977) and a live+computer-generated remake of the wholly animated Jungle Book (1967). A box-office hit ($851 million worldwide) and critical darling, Inside Out goes inside a young girl’s head, where five different emotions compete for control of the 11-year-old.

When Arlo, the smallest of three siblings, finds Spot breaking into the family grain supplies, his first inclination is to stomp on this marauding pest. The family considers Spot a pest, but after a terrible flood both kills Arlo’s beloved father and distances him from home, he and the human must work together to get back to his family.

But he is also more adept in the woods than the fearful Arlo, and the film’s most tender moments are in the wordless bonding between the pair of orphans as they navigate their way through terrain that appears modeled on the Rockies, somewhere near the geysers of Yellowstone. Arlo and Spot run into some humorous characters along the way, a common trope in films like Finding Nemo or Inside Out, but first-time feature director Peter Sohn (who also developed the story) seems to intentionally keep the storytelling more primitive than Pixar’s past efforts.

The U.K.’s Aardman Animations, the world’s most lauded stop-motion animation studio, also has a strong track record at the Oscars, with five wins — four in the animated short competition and one for a theatrical feature. Their trippiest encounter – no wait, second-trippiest, after the time they eat fermented pears – is with a Styracosaurus called Forrest Woodbush, voiced by the director, whose many-horned head provides perches for a variety of creatures that protect him from all manner of ills, including having unrealistic goals. One of its Oscar-winning shorts, 1995’s A Close Shave, featuring its trademark team of Wallace and Gromit, was the project that introduced Shaun the Sheep, the hero of this year’s Shaun the Sheep Movie.

Water — whether in pebbly shallows, luminously reflected on stone walls or welling up in the eyes of a homesick dinosaur — has never been more beautifully captured. Co-directors and co-writers Mark Burton and Richard Starzak sent the Chaplin-esque Shaun, Blitzer the sheepdog, the Farmer and his flock on a trip to the Big City.

For all the praise Pixar rightly receives, sometimes the company’s movies’ verbal wit overshadows its extraordinary visual splendor: The Toy Story films are so hilariously clever that it’s easy to forget how flat-out gorgeous they are as pieces of animation, for example. And though a host of films from “127 Hours” to “Wild” have in recent years exalted life on the trail, no film will better spur nature-lovers to head for the hills. In it, a boy and father sit on opposite sides of a room, each crouched in solemn devotion to boxes before them: a TV blaring a superhero cartoon for the boy, a cabinet for Hindu meditation for the father.

The result is a story that is weaker than the movie’s overall tone and visual splendor, especially when it gets too hung up on the dangers brought by a group of predators led by a Pterodactyl named Thunderclap (Steve Zahn). And where else, outside of The Flintstones and some of the more fringe creationist theories, are you going to see human and Apatosaurus frolicking together?

Sohn was also part of the crew on The Incredibles, Ratatouille (he did the voice of Emile in Ratatouille) and Wall-E before directing a short called Partly Cloudy and the English Language version of Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea with Lasseter. Indeed, his instincts and attitude are entrenched in the Pixar way of doing things, which allowed him to relax a bit at one point during the intense Good Dinosaur production. “The story started finding itself,” Sohn says. “They talk a lot about that at Pixar. Directed by Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda and featuring a voice cast that includes Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney and Coffin as those gibbering minions, the movie has siphoned up $1.15 billion worldwide. Earlier in the year, DreamWorks Animation’s Home, Tim Johnson’s computer-animated tale about the unlikely friendship between a young girl (Rihanna) and the misfit alien Oh (Jim Parsons), attracted $386 million worldwide. Reprising the original’s Looney Tunes-like animation style, the sequel finds Dracula growing anxious when his half-human grandson doesn’t show vampiric traits.

This year’s GKids lineup includes producer Salma Hayek’s passion project, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, based on the collection of philosophical poems by the Lebanese author. Directed by Roger Allers (The Lion King), the film serves up both a framing story about a mischievous girl and eight of Gibran’s poems, each animated with a distinctly unique look by a different animation director — among them, Academy Award nominees Tomm Moore of Ireland (Song of the Sea, The Secret of Kells) and Bill Plympton of the U.S. (Your Face, Guard Dog).

GKids also is handling distribution for Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There, which, like Princess Kaguya, was created by Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, and The Boy and the World from Brazilian artist Ale Abreu. If the animation branch is looking for something different, it need look no further than Anomalisa, a stop-motion tale of alienation written by Oscar winner Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) and directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson. Featuring the voices of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan and David Thewlis, the Starburns Industries and Snoot Entertainment production was picked up by Paramount in September and is scheduled for a Dec. 30 limited release.

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