The Very Decent Dinosaur

This past week I went to see The Good Dinosaur. As a fan of previous Pixar films, I was excited around the time of their last free-from-Disney film, Brave, to view this film, which they’d been developing for since before the takeover. So I was interested in seeing its direction after the takeover. I’d read the criticisms and the commentaries, but as a rule – especially since Dinsey basically spoiled the substance of the plot in Up with a commercial that left no doubts as to the presence and manner of “antagonist” – I avoid spoilers to Pixar films. It’s my little film vice. These movies are, in my opinion, among the best. I’d felt Pixar films have been declining since Disney began to edge itself into the creative process, and now that it’s taken over fully, I was concerned. Does The Good Dinosaur live up?

One of the aspects to any Pixar film I see is going to be its story-telling, but what grabs you first is the visual style; art style, animation, graphics rendering, backgrounds, and cinematography are all going to be the first thing that sets the mood.

And the first thing you get from the film, after a brief foray through a fairly atypical-for-the-30s-style popcorn asteroid belt, is what looks like a classic homage to Disney’s Fantasia, with tail dragging dinosaurs. (Parasaurolophus and some indistinguishable sauropod? – we are quickly drawn away from these, and they are never relevant, but suffice it to say there were no sauropods in the same formation or region of the world as Parasaurolophus.)

This was a little jarring. For all that the film had been in development, allocating a correct population of dinosaurs for the end Cretaceous at this time would have meant either removing Parasaurolophus (10ma too early) or sauropods (southern North America only, where the distinctive hadrosaurs of its time were less notably crested). But I can quickly forgive them this. The opening premise is immediately revealed: the bolide that collided with Earth approximately 66mya *missed*. The chain of events that would likely spell the doom of the majority of dinosaur species on the planet never gets the coup de grâce we’ve expected. The dinosaurs lived … on.

The visual style then immediately embraces you, and it is this aspect, the animation and rendering of its fore and backgrounds, some of it integrated with real world scenery, sets the tone: A family house in the mountains, a rustic, and rural, life. A family expecting newcomers into their world. In a reflection of the beginning of Finding Nemo, I was able to forgive, initially, the anatomical problems in the dinosaurs, quadrupeds with irregular limb joints, and camel-like knobby wrists, knees, ankles, etc.

Over the course of the film, the anatomical issues disappear as they are absorbed into the scenery, the story, and the action of the film. The silliness of the berries, the oddity of some of the characters, they all disappear into these things; an accompaniment, rather than a contrast. It may seem to some that the contrasting elements of those characters – the tyrannosaurs, the raptors, the stegosaurs, and the protagonist sauropod’s family and his dog (human) – make for some drastic jarring elements, but to me, they feed into the whole. Ultimately, what the elements of the story are telling you is that you’re having a rustic adventure, and the players in these roles just happen to be very much different from what you expect. And because this premise is laid before you in the first minute of the film, I no longer care that these aspects persist through the film.

They aren’t enough to pull you away from the action or the story.

Now, don’t mind me, I do have some gripes about the film; it’s not all to the excellent, and certainly not all to the standard Pixar had set before them, and sadly, I don’t know if it has more to do with the high number of writers, rewrites, and reproduction done on the film, it’s year-long delay and special attention, given it was set to release prior to Inside Out. The characters are far more cartoonish, more Dinsey-eque than I think they ought to be, the story tropes are very obvious, and the plot, ultimately, is very, very much an appeal to kids without the rich texture of “this bit is for adults” seen in previous films: the act of actually growing up, of missing one’s parents, of maturing through grace in the face of despair or tragedy, of being responsible and owning to one’s mistakes. We set aside the things that relieve us of these responsibilities when we grow up.

But see: we do not cease being children, where we set aside our wonder, amazement, for the dreariness and revilry in the hathos of modern life. Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur does much to remind us of this.

The story follows that of a boy (sauropod) named Arlo, and a dog (human) named [amusingly enough] Spot. And the approach is something that strikes me most not because I’ve heard the story of “a boy and his dog,” but because it’s more Jack London’s Call of the Wild than it is Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller. It is:

boy meets dog
boy and dog struggle
uneasy alliance
boy and dog cooperate
understanding happens
boy brings dog home

And in the journey, the boy … grows up, and the final scene is evocative, where he is seen less the shaking weakling of his youth, and more the secure, determinant adult he becomes. The dog is transformative, and the story is a sort of positive coming of age. It’s reflected in Spot’s story, too, but I won’t spoil that.

This movie isn’t a dinosaur movie. Treating it like one is missing the point, I think.

This movie is about a boy and his dog. It just happens to have a dinosaur and a human fill those casting positions, respectively. It’s like changing things up in the casting of your play and telling the story of Romea and Julian.

And it is thus that I can forgive the anatomical issues involved. Because I’m a sucker for a good story, and an appreciator of well-done presentations. Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur has both. Don’t judge it on the grounds of the anatomy, or their concordance [or lack thereof] to your ideals. Instead, go for a story.

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3 Responses to The Very Decent Dinosaur

  1. Zach Miller says:

    I’ve heard tell of a gang of villainous Nyctosaurus–how do they look?

    Haven’t seen the movie, and I’m in no rush to. I’ll wait for Redbox. Brian Switek touched on what I’m most disappointed about, though: Pixar made no effort to consider speculative evolution–the dinosaurs are frozen in time (Jurassic or Cretaceous, apparently), unresponsive to the rigors of natural selection aside from cartoonization. And I’m just not sure why Spot couldn’t have been ANY OTHER KIND OF MAMMAL. I refuse to believe that a human audience can’t identify with a non-human animal.

    • The pterosaur gang, which at first I assumed were comprised of different taxa as the crest shapes vary between Pteranodon sternbergi and Nyctosaurus sp. shapes, were well done, save that they also have very noticeable, and very jarringly incongruous teeth. That is, the teeth don’t look like they’d fit when the jaws close, while at the same time they also seem to have birdy beaks. Clearly, the teeth are meant to convey some aspect of viciousness: sharp teeth = bad. However, characterization-wise, they were very well done.

      • Bryan Bongey says:

        The pterosaurs’ patagia were also inaccurate, with the wing membrane attaching directly to the tail and no leg-attached patagia whatsoever, as well as the usual Hollywood ‘dactyl taloned prey-grasping bird feet. And they were scaly, with not a pycnofiber in sight. I’m rather disappointed with Pixar’s research team, and wonder how many more decades we’ll have to wait until mainstream media catches up with 1970–80s pterosaur integument research. I also wasn’t fond of the whole “scavengers are EEEEVUL!” vibe they gave off.

        The character designs that bothered me the most, however, were those of the raptors. Although they HAD feathers, they appeared to be severely afflicted with the maniraptoran equivalent of mange, with only a single sagittal stripe of plumage from head to tail tip and nothing else. The result somehow manages to bother me MORE than Jurassic World’s 100% feather-free raptors. If Pixar had gone with the “plumage pajamas” model (naked hands, feet, and face; feathered everywhere else), I would have been more or less satisfied. Even if they had given them the same integument pattern as the oviraptorosaurs, with enfluffened bodies but inexplicably scaly arms, that would have been better. But these raptors…they just look WRONG. To me it’s the equivalent of putting a body-length mohawk on an elephant and calling it a woolly mammoth.

        I was also disappointed by just how few dinosaurs there were. For all its faults, one area where 2000’s “Dinosaur” remains truly outstanding is in its plethora of obscure Mesozoic species: a giant temnospondyl, Microceratus, Pachyrhinosaurus, Struthiomimus, Ichthyornis, a sort of Longisquama/Coelurosauravus hybrid, even Carnotaurus supplanting T. rex as the obligatory theropod superpredator. For all its charming background wildlife (casque-headed birds, four-legged snakes, tusked beaver-esque mammals), TGD’s non-avian dinosaur diversity amounts to just FIVE on-screen species, plus the heterogenous pterodactyloids (and arguably the retro-sauropods and Parasaurolophus in the prologue). At one point in the film I really had my hopes up that we would be treated to something like a dinosaur version of the Mos Eisley Cantina, and felt sorely let down.

        As for Spot being a human (as opposed to any other species), that can pretty much be chalked up to Pixar’s fondness for taking a well-known theme or trope and turning it on its head: monsters whose greatest fear is a human child coming through the closet into their world, grasshoppers demanding (instead of begging) food from ants, a racecar learning to slow down, a family with superpowers living undercover because of a ban on superheroes, etc. In this case, it’s a relationship between a human and a dinosaur in which the human is portrayed as a pet and the dinosaur as the owner. I’ve never been keen on the film’s implication that humans would have evolved with or without the K-Pg extinction (especially since it feeds the mindset that our species is inherently “special” and that our existence is somehow inevitable), but I suppose there aren’t a lot of other scenarios that would allow for this sort of dynamic, so I’ve come to grudgingly accept this as a case of the ends justifying the means.

        I will say that I generally enjoyed the film, but I felt like it could have been so much more.

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