The question most likely asked by many a viewer of this film would be, “Just who was Pixar’s target audience?” As a studio Pixar has easily one of the best track records, from Toy Story to Inside Out they rarely let a person down (my exception is Cars as I can’t get behind a Doc Hollywood rip-off that has no intrinsic logic to its world), but with The Good Dinosaur I’m really not sure what they were shooting for.
The movies basic premise is interesting enough, “What if the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs missed the Earth?” After the near miss we jump ahead a few million years to find that dinosaurs have evolved to be farmers and cowboys. We first meet two Apatosaurus named Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Ida (Frances McDormand) who we see run a nice little farmstead, but this leads to my first question is, “How the Hell do you farm if you bloody well don’t have thumbs?” These dinosaurs did not evolve physically just mentally, and that is not how evolution works. And sure, you are all thinking, “But Mike, this is a kid’s movie, cut them some slack.” And I call bullshit, a kid’s movie doesn’t equal dumb and lazy. Even The Flintstones, which stuck man and dinosaurs together, never had Dino making a fence that required constructing ropes and tying off the posts.
The couple give birth to three children: Libby (Maleah Padilla), Buck (Marcus Scribner), and the runt Arlo (Raymond Ochoa). The two stronger children quickly prove their worth to the family but poor timid Arlo is practically afraid of everything, even the chickens they raise. Next question, “Why are herbivores raising chickens?” Aside from seeing Arlo try and fail to feed them we don’t find out what this family does with them.
Henry is confident that Arlo will eventually find his place, and even gives him the important job of catching and killing whatever critter is sneaking into their grain silo and eating their food. One day Arlo manages to capture a feral caveboy (Jack Bright) in a trap, but he is too reluctant to kill him, and instead sets him free. Henry, with parental disgust, drags the poor kid out into a storm to track down the varmint, and this is when we get the standard “Disney Dead Parent” moment. Henry is swept away and killed by a flash flood much in the way Mufasa was by the herd of wildebeests in The Lion King.
When Arlo discovers the caveboy back in the silo the very next day, and as he blames the kid for the death of his father, he chases the little guy to finish the job his dead dad had given him. Arlo’s track record of failure remains consistent as they both end up in the raging river which takes them far from home. Will these two put aside their differences and work together to find home? Will Arlo’s animosity turn to friendship? If you have to ask these questions you’ve probably never seen a movie before, but the makers of this film clearly have, and by having seen I mean they ripped off elements from The Land Before Time, Ice Age, Old Yeller, The Lion King, Finding Nemo, and The Incredible Journey. The premise of this movie is simply there to disguise worn out plots that even the youngest child will have most likely seen before.
Which brings us back to our initial question, “Just who is the intended audience?” The dad’s traumatic death and the constant threat of our little heroes getting eaten could send little ones into tears, while the complete antiseptic action (T-Rex’s attacks result in chomping and flinging of bodies, but no blood) will leave adults and even most kids bored. The film also lacks much in the humor department, I chuckled maybe once in the film’s entire running time, and aside from the cute feral caveboy I never really got invested in any of the characters, especially Arlo. Pixar is clearly trying to tap into the “Coming of Age” element of Finding Nemo, but I found an Apatosaurus afraid of beetles to be a poor replacement for plucky Nemo and his little fin.
The film is certainly gorgeous to look at, the CGI are environments are practically photorealistic, which some may find jarring when a stylized kid friendly cartoon dinosaur romps through them. Disney made an excellent CGI film back in 2000 called Dinosaur, but there the environs matched the denizens. Pixar clearly went for the cartoonier look to make the dinosaurs more “kid friendly” and easily made into plush toys.
Pixar does of course know how to push all the right emotional buttons as Arlo and the caveboy, who he names Spot, eventually bond over their travails, and when certain decisions have to be made I’ll admit to welling up with a tear or two, but then again I’m a pretty soft touch for that kind of manipulations. Most kids will have asked to leave the theatre long before the emotional heart of the movie arrives.
So overall I found the premise intriguing, but the execution lazy, the action too scary for kiddies but too lame for adults, and the humor almost nonexistent. Clearly a lot of work went into this I only wish they’d spent a little more time on the story structure, and gave me a protagonist I could care about, and less on how real the trees look. There is a lot of heart towards the end of the film (if you can make it that far), which all said and done just makes this a hard film to recommend. So I’d say wait for it on Home Video.