Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Good Dinosaur (2014)

Oh, the trek that I endured with this film. Let me set the context. I'm not being hyperbolic or overreactive of my feelings with this film. I am just talking about the perspectives that encouraged me to see the film. I first viewed the film's trailers and feared it as a soulless, excruciatingly mediocre, by-the-numbers, terribly trite film under the usually meticulous, delicate palms of the company who bestowed unto us the Toy Story trilogy, Finding Nemo, and this year's Inside Out. However, subsequent trailers led me to believe that the movie, while still looking simplistic, might still be rich and emotionally effective. After actually seeing it, my verdict is...Eeeehyahoohyaeh.

I'll get to that. The film takes place in a situation where the celestial (or metaphysical or natural, what have you) force that eliminated the dinosaurs did not occur. Cut forward to millions of years later, two full-grown dinosaurs welcome three babies, the last of which is Arlo, the "Good Dinosaur" in question. Given how he is the Good Dinosaur, you can predict the reason why: he doesn't fit in with his family. He is sensitive and wimpy, which hampers his ability to properly assist with duties on his farm. It also doesn't allow him to reach his full potential by doing something magnificent and leaving his mark. After being unable to finish off a creature that is stealing their food, Arlo's father leads him to finish it off and, in the process, his father dies after being washed away in a river during a tempestuous storm. This traumatizes Arlo, but soon after, he confronts the creature, a Tarzan-like boy named Spot. However, Arlo gets lost and has to find his way home and ends up forming an alliance with Spot.

I spent a good 10-20 minutes of this film (near the end of the first act and beginning of the second), watching it impartially. Given how I'm watching a Pixar film, the feeling of indifference is an uninvited one. My feelings about the film, in general, fluctuated throughout the film's 100 minutes (which end up feeling like 130 minutes, but we'll get to that). I submitted to it and accepted it during the first 15 minutes, finding myself quite pleased by its innocence, but was waiting for it to build up. After that, it gets a little complicated.

The reason I state this is because with all the film's strengths (and there are quite a few), the one anchor submerging it underwater is the Good Dinosaur, Arlo. Arlo is one of the most banal, unimpressive, predictable, toothless, ineffectual, and annoying protagonists in the Disney catalog. It may be the worst in the Pixar catalog. Every move he makes and every nuance he delivers is not surprising, but it's still so painfully derivative. You can predict his arc within the first ten minutes and I sat there, rolling my eyes, waiting for the coda of this protagonist to arrive, preferably sooner rather than later, I thought. The film itself already isn't very original (I picked up hints of Ice Age, Tarzan, The Lion King, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron, any other children's film about a 'fraidy-cat hero trying to discover his inner strength, and so forth), so breeding that with a character, whose annoying scream is heard about every five minutes, is not exactly a recipe for success.

None of the other supporting characters are very refreshing and they drag the film down with it, as well...with one exception: Spot. His interaction with Arlo keeps the film afloat for a good long while. While Arlo is one of Pixar's worst characters, Spot is one of their best. It's also the perfect dichotomy with two characters fulfilling the opposite of their default reputations: a nervous dinosaur paired up with a brazen, wild child. Youthful pluckiness is nothing new, as isn't utilizing an animalistic human to offset an anthromorphic creature. However, the character is written with subtle charisma and effective gravitas and animated with simple, gripping, at times humorous, body language. How Spot's arc is wrapped up is one of the more engaging, touching, and effective aspects of the film. I believe if the film was told through Spot's perspective as a near-silent film, much like the short, Sanjay's Super Team, which includes some of the most breathtaking, hallucinatory, poppy animation in the PIXAR canon, in addition to some of the most potent storytelling with pitch-perfect timing, I would've been much more appreciative of the film.

Speaking of which, the animation in this god! The characters, outside of Spot, aren't animated very uniquely or impressively, but the lush landscapes, the visually stimulating insects and small creatures, and its realistic geological environment all not only sit comfortably in PIXAR's animation gallery, but also one-ups itself, in terms of overall quality. It's the closest thing to PIXAR's equivalent of Avatar. PIX-atar, if you will. 

However, with all of these positive aspects, it's Arlo that brings the film down, to some extent. The story isn't all that original or even that busy, but the dreariness of Arlo never allows for the film to gain any energy to sustain itself. When Spot exits the picture, the last minutes of the film are all so telegraphed and passe that it makes the entire experience not feel worthwhile. If the main focus and backbone of the film is something so excruciatingly hackneyed, how can any investment be precipitated? As someone who hasn't seen Cars 2 and Brave, I feel that I can still safely, though not comfortably or firmly, say that this is PIXAR's weakest effort; a film not brimming with as much vision or personality or life as any of its past endeavors. It's not a lost cause, but it doesn't rise to its full potential. It's a sweet film, mind you, but not a special one, which is the greatest offense of all.

RATING: 2 1/2 stars out of four

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