Friday, November 27, 2015

The Good Dinosaur: Jurassic lark

The Good Dinosaur (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.27.15

Time and again, the folks at Pixar have demonstrated a talent for wildly imaginative, outside-the-box storytelling.

The secret lives of toys. The source of our nightmares, and our emotions. Superheroes with family and identity crises. The fate of a tiny, semi-sentient robot left alone to clean up a polluted Earth.

Arlo (far right) and his tiny "pet," Spot, find themselves in the middle of a range war, when
a trio of cattle ranchers led by Butch (second from left) take on a pack of rustling
And now, perhaps, the best and biggest “what if” of all: What if that huge asteroid hadn’t hit Earth, roughly 65 million years ago?

According to Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, at least some of the massive saurians would have established an agrarian society, homesteading and raising families much like 19th century American settlers. Indeed, this whole narrative is a playful riff on classic Western archetypes, from the aforementioned farmers to nastier aggressors lurking in outlying regions, with an actual “cattle” round-up thrown in for good measure.

At the same time, traditional family values have been grafted onto dinosaurs, often with droll intent, in the time-honored fashion of countless earlier animated Disney films that have anthropomorphized everything from elephants to Dalmatians. Indeed, much about The Good Dinosaur feels less like “standard” Pixar fare — if there is such a thing — and more like the coming-of-age plot beats of traditional Disney animated storytelling.

Then there’s also the matter of the rather unusual “pet” nipping at the edges of everything else here: a narrative element likely to make ultra-conservative, man-is-the-center-of-everything types choke on their Cheerios.

If all this sounds like rather a lot for one film, well ... yes, that’s an issue. “The Good Dinosaur” feels a bit overcooked, and it lacks the tight focus that marks Pixar’s best films. I’m always wary of scripts credited to multiple authors, and this one acknowledges five writers — Peter Sohn, Erik Benson, Meg LeFauve, Kelsey Mann and Bob Peterson — with Sohn also in the director’s chair.

At times, this saga doesn’t quite know how to find its legs, much like the title character.

Gentle Apatosaurs Poppa (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand) have tilled and harvested their land, year after year, for quite some time. (Dinosaur physiognomy is ill-suited for much else, so this makes a certain degree of sense.) We meet them just as their three children are born, with the largest egg cracking open to reveal the unusually tiny Arlo.

Unlike larger and better-adjusted siblings Buck and Libby, Arlo (initially voiced by Jack McGraw) is perpetually nervous and fearful, jumping at shadows and generally ashamed of his inability to be a “good dinosaur” like everybody else in the family.

An opportunity for redemption comes when Poppa assigns Arlo the task of capturing — and killing — the “critter” that has been raiding their larder of carefully stocked corn. The culprit turns out to be a feral human boy that literally runs circles around Arlo, who hasn’t the heart to fulfill his lethal assignment.

Dire circumstances follow: quite dire, in fact, hearkening back to Bambi, and likely to upset younger and more impressionable viewers. When the dust settles, Arlo (now voiced by Raymond Ochoa) is far from his family and hopelessly lost ... although not alone. The feral boy has taken an interest in him, and — wouldn’t you know it — the kid instinctively responds to the name “Spot.”

At which point, thinking back, we suddenly realize that, yes, this wild child has been behaving just like a devoted pet dog.

Definitely a mind-blower.

This, ah, rather bizarre relationship is the film’s strongest element. It’s obviously funny to watch a little boy scratch itself like a dog, find a scent and chase it, and — most hilariously — insist on performing necessary bathroom duties far away from anybody’s watchful gaze. All such behavior is played for laughs, but not overly so; at no time does Sohn (as director) allow Spot to become an object of ridicule.

More importantly, Spot nurtures Arlo’s inherent protective instincts; the young dinosaur also recognizes that his diminutive companion can, in turn, be quite useful. They quickly become inseparable, the key bonding moment coming when Spot — definitely showing signs of rudimentary intelligence — grasps the concept of “family.”

That, rest assured, is a heart-tugging moment.

Arlo’s subsequent effort to find his way home, accompanied by Spot, involves a series of character-building detours: a scary encounter with a pack of pterodactyls led by Thunderclap (Steve Zahn, at his most viciously manic); a very strange Styracosaurus dubbed “Pet Collector”; and a pair of massive carnivores who, like the sharks in “Finding Nemo,” aren’t as vicious as their assumed natures would suggest.

The best and funniest side trip, though, comes with the aforementioned Western send-up: a sequence granted amusing heft by gravel-voiced Sam Elliott, utterly sublime as the craggy head of a cattle-raising family that includes Ramsey (Anna Paquin) and Nash (AJ Buckley). All the stereotypes are present, from the obligatory campfire scene, where tall tales are swapped, to a subtle nod — by soundtrack composers Jeff and Mychael Danna — to Elmer Bernstein’s iconic main theme to The Magnificent Seven.

The score is excellent throughout, with the Danna brothers deftly augmenting moments both tender and frightening. Their most poignant themes come very close to the magnificence of Michael Giacchino’s introductory suite in Up. Chilling sequences, in turn, become even creepier. Best of the latter: a horrifying image of shark-like “fins” maneuvering upside-down in the dark clouds of a rapidly developing storm.

Characters and story aside, this film’s animation is its most impressive achievement. The meadow and forest landscapes, and the rushing water of a nearby river, look photographically authentic; I initially had trouble believing that all such scenes were rendered by Pixar’s CGI magicians. The overall look is spectacular.

But all this exceptional work can’t quite save the somewhat scattered narrative: The whole is less than the sum of many fine parts. The core story — Arlo’s growing confidence in himself — is too predictable; and his triumphant final gesture doesn’t “fit” at all with the family ritual so precisely established in the first act.

Bear in mind, though, that a “lesser” Pixar entry is far superior to most animated fare; the studio sets its various bars quite high. The Good Dinosaur is beautiful to look at, and fun to experience; it also comes with instructive and gently presented morals. But Pixar guru John Lasseter’s insistence on the importance of story-story-story hasn’t been followed here to the proper degree; as was the case with 2012’s Brave, the various narrative elements never quite gel.

Not a classic, then. But still enjoyable, and — at times — quite touching.

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