Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Kids these days—back then, we had to scrounge up and down the hellscape, just for a single tree star!


Note: I have used hedging language in the closing paragraph of this review because I have not seen either Cars film.  But whether The Good Dinosaur sucks worse is moot, given that it manages to suck on its own just fine.

Directed by Peter Sohn
Written by Meg LaFauve, Bob Petersen, Erik Benson, Kelsey Mann, and Peter Sohn
With Raymond Achoa (Arlo), Jack Bright (Spot), Jeffrey Wright (Poppa), Frances Macdormand (Momma), Marcus Scribner (Buck), Maleah Nippy-Padilla (Libby), Anna Paquin (Ramsey), A.J. Buckley (Nash), and Sam Elliott (Butch), and Steve Zahn (Thunderclap)

Spoiler alert: moderate

With the advent of The Good Dinosaur, perhaps we can at least tentatively say that it's no longer impressive what they can do with computers nowadays.  Oh, this isn't really true, of course; for as long as studios spend more money than they do time and care upon CGI, when someone comes along and does it right, it'll still be cause for celebration.

And yet, in the more competitive arena of fully-animated pictures, The Good Dinosaur demonstrates that our technical prowess for rendering realistic landscapes—I mean really realistic landscapes, particularly a river that, I swear, looks more realistic than the actual river under the actual bridge I crossed to get to the theater—can scarcely be improved upon.  Meanwhile, there are some isolated images here and there that are as drop-dead gorgeous as anything in any cartoon ever made—like the chiaroscuro on the cowboy tyrannosaurs herding their buffalo at sunset, or our hero's return to consciousness visualized, at first, as an out-of-focus sea of stars upon darkness, before slowly resolving into the reflected sunlight off the dark blue stream.  But, naturally, you stopped reading that sentence when I uttered the words "cowboy tyrannosaurs," and if you're like me, you'll look upon that phrase with a mixture of suspicion and prejudiced contempt.  Yet the cowboy tyrannosaurs are very possibly the best part of the movie, which does not necessarily bode that well for the rest of it.

The Good Dinosaur tells a story as old as time—or at least as old as 1942, although it sees fit to gloss it up with a science fiction conceit that it never really engages with, while removing most of the stuff that ever made that story interesting and cool in the first place.

We begin 66 65 million years ago, when the Chicxulub meteor is fated to make impact in what would later be the Yucatan Peninsula; this time, though, it misses our Earth entirely.  We flash forward "millions of years later"—apparently about 63-65 million years, as we'll soon discover.  With no cosmic intervention to put an end to their reign, the dinosaurs have simply continued to exist, advancing in intelligence and laryngeal capacity to the point that several species of them can now speak, while at least one has developed agriculture.  Presently, we fix our attention upon two examples of the latter—a mating pair of apatosauruses, known principally as "Momma" and "Poppa" to their three little hatchlings, the sneaky Libby, the athletic Buck, and the cowardly and disappointing runt of the litter, Arlo.  Flash forward again, and we find the children helping on the family farm; though of course Arlo, being physically weak and easily terrified, is found to be of correspondingly little economic use.  His father tries to cajole the young saurian into overcoming his fearful nature, and even gives him the important job of trapping and killing the "varmint" that keeps stealing into their corn silo.  (That this is a rather important job should give you some insight into Poppa's terrible management of his family.)

Predictably, Arlo screws it up—mostly because he's still a weak-kneed twerp, but also (and more sympathetically) because he lacks the killer instinct to murder the varmint, who it turns out is not just any old pesky mammal, but one that lacks hair, has opposable thumbs, and even seems to possess (by dint of wearing a diaper fashioned out of leaves) a technology of its own.  This might mean something to us, but not to Arlo's dad: when he finds out, he furiously resolves to chase the little fellow into the hinterland, and drags Arlo along for reasons of parenting.  Thus, the apatosaurs pursue the wolf-boy thing through a burgeoning storm onto the rocky, slippery banks of an increasingly-raging river; and there they discover that their flat-footed quadrupedal body plan is not really all that well-suited to living in the fucking mountains (to the extent that it's actually somewhat difficult to visualize how these sauropod homesteaders managed to ever get up here in the first place).

Well, tragedy's bound to strike in films like this, and this is (of course) the part of the first act where Arlo's father dies—but only after a herculean effort to lift Arlo onto higher ground, which works to the extent that Arlo isn't killed, although he is washed untold miles downstream.  When he wakes up and tries to get his bearings, Arlo realizes not only does he have no idea where he is—with only the murderous river to guide his path back home—but that the wolf-boy thing has followed him and, for some bizarre reason, taken to him as a pet to its beloved master.  Arlo soon comes to appreciate his company regardless, and the two begin the long journey back to the farm.  In the process they meet some colorful characters and have several adventures, all of which go to improving Arlo's mettle for a final confrontation with a clutch of seriously implausible villains.

The Good Dinosaur is thus one shockingly hidebound Hero's Journey; and this is neither good nor bad in and of itself.  What matters are the personalities, details, and visuals which the film deploys to fill up the hour between the Call to Adventure and whatever that last phase of the Campbellian monomyth is named.  Now, we've already established that Good Dinosaur has the visuals—at least, in terms of setting its stage.  In terms of actually populating that stage, however, it's a very mixed bag, and the balance favors the unpalatable: the apatosaurs in particular present themselves as a family of underdetailed, googly-eyed plushies, bland in a way that surpasses even Pixar's next-blandest character designs, from Cars and the two decade old A Bug's Life.  Further, they're abstract in a way that such photorealistically-lit and lovingly-rendered CGI dinosaurs really oughtn't be.  The only times we get the slightest hint of Spielbergian or even Bluthian wonder from these noble sauropods is when they're casting their long, magic-hour shadows across a field—that is, when they're not technically on camera at all.

Not helping matters is the film's application of Looney Tune-grade cartoon physics to Arlo.  It might have worked just fine in an overt comedy; but in a movie like this, which takes such immense pains to emphasize the physical terror of its hyperrealist environment, it winds up a quiet disaster.  There is, throughout the entire runtime, a distinct tension between what Arlo's appearance and animation represents, on the one hand, and the insistence upon real danger and real stakes, on the other.  There's a solid argument to be made that this kind of subject matter simply cannot be successful within the constraints of a modern-day PG-rating; but, then, The Land Before Time, with its G-rating, remains more-or-less successful, so violence can't be all there is to it.  And I'll give Good Dinosaur this much: when it comes to dino-destruction, it does the best it can with what it has.

But, you know, The Land Before Time didn't bet everything it had on the meta-cleverness of tyrannosaurs who were actually good guys.  Rest assured, there are still some evil utahraptors (or whatever they're supposed to be); however, they don't prove themselves to be viable villains.  Instead, the major antagonists of The Good Dinosaur are a clutch of pterosaurs.  Here's an assignment for you: I want you to try to imagine a scenario where a pterosaur can credibly threaten an apatosaur, even a lousy one like Arlo, and if you can do that, then perhaps you should have been one of the legion of writers whose many compromises resulted in this very weird yet somehow rather boring movie.

Oh, and how boring it really is: outside of a few good vocal performances for secondary characters—which are still very nearly as annoyingly on-the-nose as they are actually entertaining, particularly Sam Elliott as a t-rex of the prairie—Good Dinosaur is criminally devoid of charm for a Pixar movie, with most of its side-characters reduced to one-note stereotypes that don't even fit together all that well.  Ranging from those 1870s Texas cowpokes to a clutch of 1960s California cultists (who speak with a jive not dissimilar to a 1990s Malibu surfer), this parade of semi-comic types only reinforces the pathologically episodic nature of Good Dinosaur's narrative.  In the center of it all we have Arlo himself—who is so innocuous and dull that he can't even rise to the level of obnoxious.  And, finally, we have "Spot," who is interesting, but only in terrifically aggravating ways.

I was, I suppose, ready to forgive The Good Dinosaur the pseudo-science necessary to the functioning of its premise.  I could be angrier about its underbaked world-building than I am, too.  T-rexes raising cattle is actually pretty ingenious, but the deliberate avoidance of any other attempt to cohere a society out of a whole globe swarming with multiple intelligent species is a little bit infuriating, even in a kid's movie.  And I know that you can say "kid's movie" and convince yourself that you've won some kind of argument, but you realize that children like expansive fantasy universes, too, right?  Or do you live in a world where the under-twelves hate Star Wars?  (Heck, I won't even say a word about how the cornfield that Arlo's family is raising would be barely sufficient to feed a family of humans for a year, let alone a family with about a thousand times the biomass.)

But then we reach the breakpoint: Spot and his species, who are both humans, and absolutely not humans, simultaneously.  Instead, they're a graspingly artificial mixture of human appearance and non-human behavior that doesn't match with their physicality.  Obviously, 65 million years is a long time, and there should be no expectations that—were we to repeat nature's grand experiment—H. sapiens would be the "final" result.  In The Good Dinosaur, however, I have no idea what the hell the result even was.  The film's "humans," starting with Spot and continuing with a nuclear family of silver-haired primates from the same breed, are a collection of obnoxious and contradictory traits.  (Just for starters, the "default human" ain't white.)  We initially take Spot to be a feral lad without language, and though he's old enough to understand that his parents are buried in the ground (and even though feral humans still don't walk on all fours) it's almost close enough to work.  However, when we meet his genetic kin, and they too howl like wolves and crawl about on all fours like dogs—and when the film implies that humans have the olfactory capabilities of a bloodhound, yet all go to the trouble of wearing pants over their genitals (and even fur brassieres over their unlikely, permanently-swollen breasts!)—well, I found myself caught in some kind of Roger Corman-directed purgatory of absolute nonsense, from which escape was impossible.

And am I being overly literal, to the point of being kind of stupid?  Yes I am.  But don't miss this particular forest for its horrifyingly-overrendered trees: the real point I'm making is that The Good Dinosaur is so dull and lacking on its own merits that I spent over half of this movie trying to figure out the evolutionary lineage of a species of cartoons.  Could there be any more damning way to dismiss this movie than that?  If there is, let me know; for presently I'm staring down the barrel of what I reckon might be the worst movie in Pixar's history.

Score:  5/10

P.S. and update!: Apparently, I forgot that The Good Dinosaur is preceded by a pleasant little short film called Sanjay's Super-Team.  Written and directed by Sanjay Patel, Super-Team's about a young lad who keeps cranking the volume up on his Western superhero cartoons while his pious father tries to worship his gods, and thereby runs afoul of his dad's ire.  Cajoled into praying instead of watching his program, young Sanjay naturally finds his father's Vaishnavism quite tedious.  (Presumably young Sanjay is the alter ego of his creator; though I'll point out that we wouldn't necessarily make this assumption, if they were both named "John.")  Anyway, Sanjay daydreams as kids are wont to do, and, imagining his father's deities as superheroes in their own right, Sanjay uses this semi-tenuous similarity to connect to his father's faith in a way that's meaningful to him.  Of course, as a child, his engagement is facile, possibly even literally blasphemous (though I guess I wouldn't know), but at least it's something, and the father and son find a subject which they can care about, together.

It's relatively sweet; it's maybe even a little bit more insightful; and it seems personal in all the ways that The Good Dinosaur absolutely doesn't.  But above all, it is excitingly angular and vividly colorful—and though it won't terribly impress anybody who's seen, say, TRON: Legacy or Speed Racer, it's nonetheless a much more worthwhile use of its seven minutes than The Good Dinosaur is of its whole hour and a half.  Indeed, I suspect it might be my favorite piece of Pixar animation-qua-animation since 2013's Monsters University.  But if that's going too far, you may also wish to compare and contrast Sanjay's Super-Team with Pixar's last short subject, Lava, which you shall recall was an impossibly stupid piece of ugly garbage.  Score, for what it is: 7/10

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