I am, by no means, one of those people whose heart beats faster when he sees the name Pixar affixed to a movie, so I am less likely than many to cut the latest offering some slack just because of the brand name — and The Good Dinosaur (The Barely Tolerable Dinosaur is more like it) needs all the slack it can get. Now, I’ve deliberately avoided the Cars movies — and that could make a difference — but this is easily the worst Pixar title I’ve seen. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and say it’s actually pretty bad. In a way, it’s worse than bad. It’s boring, out of fresh ideas and so lacking in story that it barely exists at all. Yeah, it has the requisite “believe in yourself” moral, but what children’s movie doesn’t? And this is very much “believe in yourself” 101 — maybe even the nursery school edition. Here is a movie geared to only the very youngest of viewers — and perhaps those seriously obsessed with dinosaurs — while not forgetting to include scenes where cute creatures are casually consumed by villainous pterodactyls as luncheon snacks.
The premise of The Good Dinosaur is intriguing — what if the asteroid that took out the dinosaurs had missed hitting the earth?. What is done with that premise is not. I suppose it sounds like the gateway to a Creationist’s theme park dream come true, though I doubt the movie’s notion of a world where humans are reduced to wolf-like wild creatures and agrarian dinosaurs are the advanced species would play well in that realm. In any case, what we end up with is the old — so very old — cowardly-runt-of-the-litter-makes-good yarn, with little Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) proving himself. Of course, this involves killing off Poppa Brontosaurus/Apatosaurus (Jeffrey Wright) in the process, followed by the requisite adventures and Arlo making friends with a human boy (Jack Bright) he names Spot. (The level of invention is not high.) Workable? More or less. Impressive? Not so much. Worse, it’s all uneven and only barely hooked together.
Rather than any kind of smoothly integrated narrative, we end up with a series of choppy vignettes of wildly varying quality — and that’s being charitable. On those rare occasions when the movie flirts with inspiration — like the cowardly Styracosaurus (director Peter Sohn) — the flirtation is little more than a short-lived cameo. Even the scenes with the likable Tyrannosaurus Rexes — headed-up by a grizzled dino-patriarch Sam Elliott doing his Sam Elliott thing — have a perfunctory feeling, giving the movie the inescapable sense of just marking time. And marking it very slowly.
Pixar apologists are out in force raving over the film’s “photo-realist” beauty. Are we really still supposed to be impressed by a movie being able to create realistic settings on a computer? Even if we are (and I’m not), it’s a stretch to view that as a saving grace. It’s all too reminiscent of the old saw about theater production design: “No one ever went out humming the scenery.” More to the point here, what is the idea of creating this realistic world and filling it with creatures that look like refugees from The Flintstones TV series and Mowgli from 1967’s The Jungle Book? Like so much of The Good Dinosaur, it just doesn’t hang together. Will it beat out this week’s other mainstream titles at the box office? Probably, but it’s a pretty soft week. Rated PG for peril, action and thematic elements.