A boy and his 'saur
Pixar's The Good Dinosaur is arguably the studio's problem child--in 2009 announced for production, in 2013 director and producer replaced, in June 2015 nearly the entire cast replaced. The movie was released to fairly little fanfare, a few months after Pixar's major production had already been launched and declared a favorite by audience and critics alike (but not by me, alas).
The picture opens with a joke: an elaborate sequence involving a giant rock being nudged like a billiard ball out of its (unrealistically crowded) asteroid belt, hurtling towards the Earth, flaring up from the heat of atmospheric passage--and whizzing past the planet by a few thousand miles. The sauropods look up and around, curious at what they might have missed.
Millions of years later and we have an apatosaurus plowing a field with his big nose. Right there I wanted to stand up and say "Now wait a minute--" Took mammals some fifty-plus million years to start developing intelligence, developing the legs to walk upright, developing the arms to hold tools, weave ropes, tie sticks together in a fence. Apatosauruses planting corn and raising chickens? Raising a stone silo for storing grain in winter? Without hands? *
* (For all my constant chipping away at Spielberg's reputation as a filmmaker he does get one thing right in his Jurassic movies--but then this picture would end up titled The Good Raptor)
Okay--granted it's a movie and we're probably talking metaphorically ("see, apatosauruses are herbivores so they'd develop farming--"); then why bother with the meteor gag? Why even attempt a rational explanation when your world clearly isn't meant to make any sense? Why not do what Pixar did with Cars--just go right into the story without word or explanation (though in that movie's case the questions become more disturbing: "What happened to the people?")?
We meet runt-of-the-litter Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) who flees from dino-chickens, is hopeless at farming, whines nonstop through the early half of the movie. His loving Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) despite unvoiced doubts assures Arlo that someday he'll "earn his mark"--press muddy pawprint to stone, the dino equivalent of marking a Wall of Honor.
Alas before this happens tragedy strikes; Momma is forced to continue running the farm without her husband's help; Arlo pursues a grunting doglike boy stealing their corn. Boy and 'saur fall into a river, are carried away for miles, pick themselves up, head back home.
The boy (who Arlo names 'Spot') eventually sees others of his kind, grunting and crouched on all fours; again I wanted to stop and say "Now wait a minute"--if these primitives were advanced enough to stitch together animal pelts for clothing, why are they still ambling along on all fours?
I realize moviemakers have never been big science geeks (and sometimes even self-professed big science geeks don't always get their facts right) but it's still depressing to learn that digital
filmmakers with millions of dollars on tap can't even be bothered to spend a few minutes on Google to check out basic paleontology.
And maybe it isn't just the cavalier attitude towards prehistory; maybe it's the fact that five million years have passed and Pixar animators still haven't fully evolved the capacity to tell a subtle story; to develop a narrative without a gag or frenetic action sequence inserted every ten minutes; to recognize that maybe--just maybe--the audience isn't all afflicted with ADHD, and that tragedy or even just a sad moment needn't be tapped gently into place with crowbar and sledgehammer.
Would like to take this moment to note that the moviemakers have possibly inserted a Grave of the Fireflies reference (fat lot of good it did 'em), and that yes the software generating grass and leaf, clouds and water is marvelous--can't help but feel, though, that Nestor Almendros sent out for a day with an old-fashioned analog camera would return with better footage any day, even with one arm tied behind his back.
By movie's end (skip if you plan to watch, which I don't recommend) Arlo is about to press his paw on said Wall of Honor. "Now wait a minute," I imagine a peeved Momma speaking out. "I worked my ass off harvesting the corn and storing it in this silo, in the meantime what did you do? Take a long vacation, come back after the harvest is done, and easy as you please walk up and mark the Wall? Not on my watch, buster!" Doesn't happen, alas; the Pixar in my head is still doing things better than the Pixar I keep seeing on the big screen.