As dinosaur fans, we’ve been looking forward to Disney and Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur,” and while it had plenty of feel-good moments, the movie itself was too familiar and at its center was a disappointingly unlikable character: Arlo.
“The Good Dinosaur” was conceived by Bob Peterson who was originally slated to direct and is credited as one of five writers that include the director who replaced him, Peter Sohn, as well as Erik Benson, Meg LeFauve and Kelsey Mann. At its most basic, the movie is about a boy and his dog except in this case the boy is a young Apatosaurus named Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa ) and the dog is a young grunting human boy who Arlo calls Spot (Jack Bright). The six-to-seven-year-old boy Spot has no spots which must be part of the joke.
“The Good Dinosaur” imagines what if the Earth was never hit by an asteroid? The dinosaurs never became extinct and now rule the world. Rule might be a bit misleading because we see no evidence of a larger government body at work or larger social groups than a nuclear family in this American Northwest (below the Canadian border if Canada existed) setting.
On a farm at the foot of Claw Mountain, Arlo and his brother Buck (Marcus Scribner) and his sister Libby (Maleah Padilla) are born from the same clutch of eggs, with Arlo being from the unusually big egg, but ending up being not only the runt of this litter, but most fearful. He doesn’t want to leave the safety of his egg. Once out, he’s afraid of everything. He’s afraid of feeding the chickens. These chickens aren’t like any of the chickens at Old McDonald’s Farm or anything that KFC uses. They are a bit bigger and tougher and they scare Arlo whose chore is to feed them.
Arlo is scared of bugs, too–even tiny bugs, but his father, Henry (Jeffrey Wright), shows him that sometimes bugs can be quite glorious. His father hows him how to make glow worms fly and illuminate the night. That’s a beautiful image that’s repeated later between Arlo and the boy. While Libby and Buck do well enough with their farm chores and earn the right to put their foot print on the rock silo where they store their corn, Arlo fails. Finally, Henry tells Arlo he might earn his right if he captures the rascally vermin that keeps breaking into the silo and eating their corn.
Arlo almost does, but he’s supposed to club the critter to death and that’s where the problem lies. The vermin is a boy and Arlo allows the boy to escape only to be forced by his father to hunt the critter down. Arlo and his father Henry follow the critter’s tracks to the river, but as it starts to rain the tracks begin to disappear. Henry urges Arlo to hurry down the rocky paths cut over the centuries by the river. If you’ve been in the desert and are familiar with canyons and gullies carved out from hard rock, then you’ll know there’s a danger of flash floods. Just this last September, there was a flash flood in Utah that swept away and killed 16 people. While Apatosaurs are pretty big, the Utah flash flood swept away cars. Scientists calculate that an adult Apatosaur could weigh as much as 25 tons. A car like the 2013 Hyundai Accent weights a little more than a ton (2,000 pounds) at 2,396 pounds. A 2013 BMW 740i sedan weighs a little over two tons (4,344 pounds). I’m not sure if I’m convinced that a full-grown Apatosaur be swept away and drowned. Here, I also can’t help but think of another scene where a father pushes a son to safety but dies: “The Lion King.”
In “The Lion King,” Simba waits in the gorge for his father, Mufasa, misled by his uncle Scar. Scar’s henchmen the hyenas help start a stampede and Mufasa gets Simba to safety, but through Scar’s treachery, ends up being trampled to death by the wildebeest.
Like Simba, Arlo survives, but with a lot of guilt. Eventually, Arlo ends up in the river, and, lost miles away from home. He, predictably, must depend upon Spot to help him find food. Spot is more together than your average six-year-old human. He can sniff out danger. He’s more at home on all fours than going bipedal. He has no fear and he saves Arlo more than once. Together Arlo and Spot struggle to find their way home by searching for the Claw Mountain and the river which flows around it.
Along the way, they meet a few colorful characters such as the pet collecting Styracosaurus (Sohn) whose horned frill is home to a variety of pets including his beloved Debbie and Dreamkiller who protects him “from having unrealistic goals.” He wants Spot and competes with Arlo to name the feral child. One wishes more was made of this character who is potentially funnier than Arlo.
Arlo then helps a gang of vulture-like Pterodactyls whose leader, Thunderclap (Steve Zahn), is like an opportunistic backwoods preacher who believes “the storm will provide.” Although Thunderclap initially sounds like a search-and-rescue leader, we soon learn he’s a search-and-eat opportunist. That horrifies the herbivore Arlo, especially when Thunderclap wants to liberate Spot to be his lunch.
Arlo and Spot are rescued from the Pterodactyls by a group of Tyrannosaurus cowboys. The cowboys headed by Butch (Sam Elliott) also threaten to eat him and Spot, unless Arlo and Spot help them. Butch and his rambunctious daughter (Anna Paquin) and fun-loving son (A.J. Buckley) are searching for their herd of longhorns. Spot sniffs them out and Arlo, with the help of Spot, help Butch find the rustlers (Velociraptors). This adventure gives Arlo a new-found confidence that aids him on the final part of his journey home when the Pterodactyls return. (For Pixar fans, John Ratzenberger voices Earl, a Velociraptor.)
The animation varies between the more cartoony dinosaurs and the gorgeously realistic Western backgrounds, water and vegetation. It’s almost like the attempts of introducing animation into real background, but it doesn’t always work–mostly because Arlo as a character isn’t particularly appealing. Will any kid be able to relate to Arlo? Perhaps a few, but they will be too frightened to venture out into strange world and express an opinion. For the rest of the world, one filled with adults and boisterous girls and boys, Arlo is the kind of person one either pities or picks on.
One wishes the story had been set around the Tyrannosaurus family with more than a cameo appearance by the Styracosaurus. It’s a nice change that the Apatosaurus are not represented as fainting and helpless as in the recent “Jurassic World,” but the world isn’t fully imagined. How do the carnivores and the herbivores function together in this alternative reality? How do herbivores meet other herbivores? Or just why is the Apatosaurus family so isolated?
“The Good Dinosaur” opens on Nov. 25. The animated short, “Sanjay’s Super Team,” precedes “The Good Dinosaur.” Directed by Sanjay Patel, the short displays more interesting possibilities than “The Good Dinosaur.”