The Good Dinosaur is a road movie, a buddy comedy, a slyly surreal Western, and a family-friendly animated adventure film all in one. It has a weird sense of humor and the only moment of genuine mourning I’ve seen in a film of any kind all year, save Pixar’s other 2015 release, Inside Out. Comparisons to that other Pixar film are unavoidable. I am going to dispense with them entirely except to say that it is possible to love both films even if the one (The Good Dinosaur) appeals to my particular tastes (the American west, a dark sense of humor, questions of fear and how to overcome it) more than the other. Your mileage may vary, as the saying goes.
The Good Dinosaur is about a dinosaur, Arlo, who works on a farm with his family beneath the vista of what we know as the Teton mountain range (they call it Claw Tooth Mountain). Spared from extinction when the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs misses its mark, dino-society has advanced to the stage of our Westward Expansion (though without the aid of technology). Humanity is dog-like, though they’re seen as pests rather than pets by the dinosaurs, and Arlo and a particular human’s learning to care for each other is a small part of the movie’s story. (I love how Pixar constructs trailers for their films; the films are almost always more than they appear to be in the marketing.) Arlo is an innately afraid young dinosaur, and after he gets separated from his family in an accident, he must find his way home. On the way he encounters a host of odd characters and learns how to master his fear.
The animation in The Good Dinosaur is as photorealistic as anything Pixar has done since the opening forty minutes of WALL•E. I could be convinced that they shot this movie on location in Wyoming and added the dinosaurs, people, and other animals and bugs into the images. They didn’t, of course. This is all rendered in a computer, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. I’ve spent a lot of time in the American West—my wife and I were in the Tetons and Yellowstone a little over a month ago, and we live in Colorado—and Pixar has done an incredible job coding these landscapes. These photorealistic landscapes and detail shots makes this as “American” a film as Pixar has yet produced.
The landscape is also kind of distracting, because the dinosaurs, people, and other animals and bugs are not photorealistic. They look like cartoons. Until you get used to it, you feel like you’re watching animated characters superimposed onto filmed landscapes. Had Pixar made the characters photorealistic as well, they wouldn’t have been able to make them do cartoony things like span gulfs using their teeth and tails as contact points or sit around a campfire swapping stories beneath the stars though. It’s a give and take. Bonus: if The Good Dinosaur’s meandering story isn’t to your taste, you can always glory in the beauty of the landscapes.
Arlo and the boy can’t talk to one another, so most of their interactions are non-verbal. They are also very funny. The Good Dinosaur has an unexpectedly off-kilter sense of humor. The film expresses its humor in both bold—there’s an hallucinogenic dream sequence—and subtle ways—the film carries through on the “humans as dogs” idea right down to the way the boy moves his eyes. Surprise is the essence of humor, and since The Good Dinosaur pushes into the surreal and macabre in its humor, the film is constantly surprising and, therefore, funny. I laughed both while watching the film and while thinking about it afterwards.
Arlo is timid long before he has reason to be. He’s born scared. Eventually his fear leads to a tragedy, and he responds to that tragedy with greater fear and new-found aggression. That aggression leads to further tragedy. The Good Dinosaur never questions Arlo’s aggression. It tacitly approves of it. Early in the film Arlo’s aggression is fueled by anger. Later, it is fueled by love. That’s grand, but I wish the filmmakers had figured out a way for Arlo to express that love other than through violence.
On the other hand, The Good Dinosaur also links fear and loss in a way that most movies do not, and Arlo is only able to overcome his fear after he has properly mourned what he has lost. As Americans, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Paris, consider requiring Sudanese refugees to register based on their religion, an act of aggression motivated by fear if ever I’ve seen one given that it directly contradicts the kind of religious freedom our country was built on—we’re denying a core aspect of our national identity because we’re afraid—this aspect of The Good Dinosaur’s story couldn’t be more timely. 9/11 is an open wound, a loss we have yet to mourn, and the fear it inspired still motivates our actions.
One of The Good Dinosaur’s most indelible images is that of villainous invaders circling the sky like sharks waiting for the right moment to descend and wreak havoc. These villains feed off that which inspires fear in Arlo. They invite him to join their ranks, but he recognizes how twisted they’ve become, how they’ve lost their sense of identity, and the terrible things that loss leads them to do. I am not suggesting that The Good Dinosaur is meant as an allegory for post-9/11 America, but I do think if we heeded the film’s warnings about what we become when we let fear rule our lives and followed its example on how to overcome fear, we’d be much better off as a society. We might actually start loving the world instead of hiding from it or attacking it. We might leave a mark we can be proud of instead of one that brings us shame.
Good dinosaurs – that’s what we need to be. Loving, honest, hard-working, behemoths who mourn what we’ve lost, own up to our part in the world’s problems, look out for those weaker than us, and do what we can make things right. We’d also all do well to get outside and get a good look at this beautiful land we call home. It’s weird and wonderful with surprising things around every bend just like this film.
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