The Good Animated Dinosaurs

The-Good-DinosaurIt’s been out for a couple of weeks now, but Dan and I only just recently gave in to the Disney marketing machine’s relentless pitch and went to see The Good Dinosaur. It’s a lovely film, but as we sat in the theatre, I couldn’t help but compare it to one of my favorite childhood films, The Land Before Time. (Warning: None of this will make much sense if you haven’t seen The Good Dinosaur, so go forth and enjoy the film … then come back!)

Arlo, The Good Dinosaur’s protagonist, and Little Foot, the main character in The Land Before Time, actually have a lot in common—they’re both a little skittish and frightened of life. They both lose a parent to the harsh elements. And they both overcome cultural differences to learn the true meaning of friendship and family.

Though both struggle with the loss of a parent, Little Foot’s sorrow was heart-wrenching in a way that Arlo’s wasn’t … simply because he wasn’t given as much of an opportunity to struggle with it. Little Foot’s sadness is palpable and heartbreaking, where Arlo’s sadness seems to be overshadowed by his familial duty. And just as Little Foot’s mother’s spirit pushes him forward on his journey to The Great Valley, her voice a whisper on the wind when he’s at his lowest, Arlo’s father makes an appearance when Arlo is truly stuck—physically and emotionally–and needs a little push on his own journey home.

Another commonality: Sage characters who set the young dinos on their path early on. Rooter, a hippie scolosaurus who helps Little Foot as he regains his footing following his mother’s death, compares directly to Forrest, a very odd styracosaurus who helps cement the bond between Arlo and his “pet,” the human Spot. But where Rooter’s message is grandfatherly and comforting, Forrest is just off putting and frankly a little creepy. (Okay … a lot creepy.)

The Good Dinosaur
Forrest is a creeper. Even Arlo’s like, “really?”

For all of their similarities, there are a couple of things that are missing from The Good Dinosaur. First, we don’t have many moments of kids being kids. Pixar went out of their way to make Arlo younger (he was a teenager in the original script), but when they aged him down, they didn’t give him many fun moments with Spot, like when Cera and Little Foot chase a frog together. There’s one notable moment where Arlo and Spot cut loose and make each other laugh, but I think their unique relationship (as man and pet) makes it a little harder for the lighter side of childhood to naturally come out.

Along those same lines, I felt Pixar’s latest was missing an element of comedy. There were a couple of giggle-worthy moments from Spot, but largely, Arlo’s journey is a little joyless. You might think that there’s not really room for that on such a harrowing adventure, but just look at Petrie, Ducky and even Spike (who may be the closest analogue to Spot in The Land Before Time). The Land Before Time is only 80 minutes long (a full 20 minutes shorter than The Good Dinosaur), but it still manages to inspire several laughs along the way.

The death and solemnity in these films, of course, is no laughing matter. Though there’s some realistic violence in The Land Before Time, it feels softer around the edges in a way. We’re learning about the circle of life—we even get a quick primer on leaf-eaters and meat-eaters, on the movement of the continents. There are terrifying encounters and near-death experiences. And even some dino-on-dino violence. But it’s all done in direct service of the story and it feels like part of our education about the world the dinosaur’s inhabited—and part of Little Foot’s education about life in his world.

The Land Before Time
Little Foot says goodbye to his mother.

One thing’s for sure: No one in The Land Before Time is drowning enemies in blood. This cartoonishly ridiculous and stomach-churningly violent statement made by the T-Rex ranchers is “humorous” in a uniquely dry, millennial way, and oddly, even in comparison to the more realistic violence in Land, the statement seems really graphic. And completely out of place in a kids’ movie. (While we’re on the topic of inappropriate, can we give a nod to the scene where our young main characters get high on rotten fruit? How are you going to explain that to a kid?!)

I didn’t learn much about actual dinosaurs or any kind of real history from The Good Dinosaur (although props on the feathered rators!). But that wasn’t the point. Especially because Pixar created a rich and fascinating fictional world: An old-West-style culture, complete with farmers, ranchers and bandits. I wish they’d made that movie. Or at least let us spend some more time in that world. Old West dino society is a story I’m interested in! Instead, we follow Arlo from one calamity to the next without much relief at all.

There’s no question that The Good Dinosaur’s world is fascinating. And a great deal prettier than The Land Before Time. I read somewhere that it took the Pixar team a month to animate the rain, and the way the light creates shadows and dances on the water … it’s beautiful. But Arlo, all cartoonish shape, awkward angles and bruised knees, detracts from the scenery. He doesn’t belong there. I guess that’s the point? But it’s a point whose meaning is lost because I’m constantly being jarred out of the action by the visuals.

The Good Dinosaur
Arlo and Spot check out the scenery that’s a lot better drawn than they are

At least Don Bluth’s animation is uniform. It looks pretty crappy by today’s standards, sure, but his production and design decisions don’t immediately remove me from the emotion of the moment. And it’s funny, but in my memory, The Land Before Time’s scenes are much more vivid and detailed than they actually are (based on more recent viewings). Even with all of his simplicity, I love Little Foot. I love every line and wrinkle on his face and his cute little spine ridges. They’re not incredibly detailed or beautifully rendered, but Little Foot and his friends have character. Although The Good Dinosaur is undoubtedly lovely, I don’t necessarily think this kind of movie has to be beautiful to be impactful. Kids fill that stuff in.

Despite its distracting design, The Good Dinosaur does what Pixar films do best. There’s raw, intimate emotion, like the absolutely incredible and touching scene where, without any semblance of common language, Arlo and Spot connect over their common loss and grief. There’s also genuine creativity (think: sharks of the sky) and brilliant wit (think: whack-a-mole). But overall, there’s just not enough of these shining moments to make this a really top-shelf Pixar movie.

What would The Good Dinosaur have been if it had remained true to its initial incarnation? And the biggest question I walked out of the theatre with: Why is it called The Good Dinosaur, anyway? What did Arlo do that made him good? Go home to his family? I think perhaps along with the film’s ever changing plot, script and voice actors, the creators should have considered a name change. Since The Land Before Time was taken, how about Homeward Bound? Or … Home? Or … hmm … The Wild? … I give up … All the good movie titles with this plot are already taken.

What did you think of The Good Dinosaur? Let us know in the comments!

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