Film

Pixar’s ‘The Good Dinosaur’ Is Full Of Lame Ideas That Should Have Died Out

Good Dinosaur, bad movie.

This review contains spoilers.

In 2015, for the first time in the company’s history, Pixar released two films. One of them was wonderful. The other was The Good Dinosaur.

Having once been a child palaeontology enthusiast, I was looking forward to it. But in the cinema, I found myself resenting that it takes place in a world where that fateful asteroid did not strike the Earth 65 million years ago, but instead upended evolution so that humans and dinosaurs live side-by-side.

Only about a third of the way in did it click for me that this film is not really about dinosaurs. This seems obvious, I know, but its anthropomorphism is odder than 2013’s similarly themed Walking with Dinosaurs – or even Finding Nemobecause the film doesn’t simply attribute human characteristics and motivations to dinosaurs. It’s actually more like Cars in that it’s subbing in dinosaurs for humans. Here, it’s actual, historical humans: 19th-century American frontier settlers. And this is something the trailer seeks to conceal.

Ultimately The Good Dinosaur is a bog-standard western. All it asks is, “What if the Old West was actually settled by dinosaurs, not humans?” And it has approximately ten percent of the verve of Gore Verbinski’s Rango. I almost wasn’t going to write this review, because there’s not much point over-analysing a movie made for very young children.

But it troubles me so much that Pixar is a company known for striving to outdo itself, in technical craft and in narrative originality, with each film it releases, yet The Good Dinosaur feels so desultory, sugaring its conservative values with kids’ well-known fondness for dinosaurs.

The title of the film is weirdly ambiguous: what ideals does Pixar hold to be ‘good’? Why has The Good Dinosaur imagined a world that departs decisively from our own, yet it only uses that radical break to replicate historical racism, sexism and manifest destiny?

The Call Of The Wild

I started baulking at the film quite early on, when our runty Apatosaurus hero, Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) joins his family – kindly but authoritarian Poppa (Jeffrey Wright), nurturing Momma (Frances McDormand), bullying big brother Buck (Marcus Scribner) and clever sister Libby (Maleah Padilla) at work… on their farm.

Yep, these vegetarian dinosaurs grow corn, keep chickens, and build complex houses and silos of logs and mortared stones – seemingly only by nudging things around with their snouts, and gripping them with their teeth and prehensile tails. Oooh, it’s making me mad just to remember it!

But the film only establishes this homestead to threaten it, sending Arlo off on his monomyth quest. After Arlo fails to kill a feral human ‘critter’ (Jack Bright) that’s been stealing the family’s corn, Poppa orders him to help track the critter through a thunderstorm. And in saving his wimpy son from a flash flood, Poppa meets a Mufasa-esque death.

If Arlo is meant to be a pioneer boy in this universe, the ‘critter’ is a dog. He growls instead of talking, has canine body language, and Arlo ends up naming him Spot. And it’s in chasing him from the farmstead once more that Arlo becomes lost. Only by working together with Spot will he find his way home.

This doglike character reminded me of Jack London’s famous adventure novels. In 1903’s The Call of the Wild, a pet dog is kidnapped, trained as a sled dog and rescued by a kindly gold prospector, then finally ‘answers the call’ and joins a wild wolf pack. White Fang (1906) works the other way round: the titular wolf-dog is born wild and lives a vicious, degraded frontier life until he’s finally tamed by a young prospector and fathers a litter with a sheepdog.

Disney alone has produced lots of live-action movies in this tradition, including Old Yeller (1957), Nikki, Wild Dog of the North (1961), The Legend of Lobo (1962), The Incredible Journey (1963), Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar (1967) and Benji the Hunted (1987).

As well as being pulpily anthropomorphic, these stories are firmly in the sentimental tradition of the American pastoral: the philosophy that one discovers one’s best self by shunning (white) civilisation and heading into the wilderness. The Good Dinosaur’s romance for the American landscape is clear in the way its character design is bland and rubbery, yet its nature backgrounds are painstakingly gorgeous, almost photorealistic.

The Good Dinosaur only makes sense as a nostalgic tale from a bygone American frontier where people could become ‘good’ by rejecting the decadence of urban modernity. Because dinosaurs are now extinct, they serve as a metaphor for this vanished time and place.

The Good Animation Company: Pixar’s Political Limits

From its early achievements in Toy Story to the triumph of Inside Out, Pixar has distinguished itself from other animation firms – including its parent company, Disney – for its intensely affective, humanist approach. The success of its films is often judged by the emotional response they provoke in viewers – Up was notorious for making people cry in its first few minutes.

The Good Dinosaur’s emotional flashpoints are its father-son relationship and the trust and loyalty built up between Arlo and his dog Spot. Arlo must make his dad proud, as well as protecting Spot, who protected him. Like most Pixar films (and, indeed, The Fast and the Furious) it’s obsessed with the notion of family. Either you take your assigned role in your own nuclear family, or you join a substitute family.

But that’s such well-worn territory by now. The Good Dinosaur fails to say anything new. And it bothered me that it keeps saying old things. Why, after female-fronted films such as Brave and Inside Out, does yet another boy get to discover how to become a man? What about clever Libby, left behind at home to water the corn, or Momma, struggling stoically on without her man?

The film is notable for its lack of female agency. Mandy Freund voices one of a savage band of storm-chasing pterosaurs, but Steve Zahn is their leader and spokesman. Anna Paquin plays a sparky Texan Tyrannosaur, one of a family who herd cattle; but her fierce dad (Sam Elliott) is an authority figure even more emphatic than Jeffrey Wright’s gentle Poppa. Likewise, a male character, voiced by Dave Boat, leads the marauding, cattle-rustling Velociraptors who threaten the herd.

Are we letting this stuff through to the keeper because that’s just how things were on the old frontier? Likewise, it was such a tired cliché to depict a forest-dwelling Styracosaurus (voiced by the film’s director, Peter Sohn) as a crafty, mystical Native American.

Some months ago, James Douglas observed that Pixar films, like all corporate products, “glaze a veneer of enlightenment over a brutal, instrumental value system”. Perhaps it’s foolish to seek progressive values from a company that prizes usefulness as the ultimate virtue: its protagonists only become better in order to do better in socially designated roles, not to be politically progressive, or for any intrinsic moral goodness.

The Good Dinosaur establishes Arlo as a useless character: too afraid to guard the chickens, too weak to lift sacks of grain, and too tender-hearted to kill human vermin. Unlike everyone else in his family, he hasn’t yet earned the right to ‘make his mark’: stamping his footprint in mud on the side of the family silo.

In the end, of course he does. But the film itself fails to make a mark: it’s more striking for its fixation on depicting natural beauty than for doing anything innovative with its story. We shouldn’t settle for The Good Dinosaur’s nostalgia when Pixar still could imagine a better future world.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at@incrediblemelk.