Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review: "The Good Dinosaur"

"The Good Dinosaur" contains many notes and musical phrases from other animated films, but it's still a strong song all on its own.

It mostly feels like elements of "The Lion King" and "Finding Nemo," with a little bit of "The Croods" thrown in. Reportedly this movie from Disney/Pixar ran into all sorts of problems during production and they essentially had to start over from scratch, with a new cast and director.

It certainly was worth it, as "The Good Dinosaur" is easily the best animated film I've seen this year. (Albeit in a weak year for cartoon movies.)

Raymond Ochoa voices Arlo, a young Apatosaurus who gets separated from his family and must make an uneasy alliance with Spot, a feral human boy (Jack Bright). The twist here is that this is an alternate reality where that big asteroid didn't hit the Earth and wipe out the mammoth land reptiles. Given a few million years to evolve further, they've become the planet's dominant species, capable of speech, agriculture, tools and more.

The humans, meanwhile, can do little more than grunt and bark. Spot is essentially part wolf, a fierce warrior (for his size) and hunter with a terrific sense of smell. Spot and Arlo are enemies, then thrown-together castoffs, then circumstantial allies, then something more.

Director Peter Sohn and his team of animators made an interesting choice visually. Except for the dinosaurs and people, everything is rendered in hyper-realistic animation. The mountains, the dirt, the vegetation and even smaller animals -- collectively described by the dinos as "critters" -- almost look like they've sprung to life out of National Geographic gallery.

Arlo, Spot and their fellows, however, have a deliberately cartoony look to them, with exaggerated features and shapes. Arlo's eyeballs are so big that if they were actually spherical, they would have to extend out past the sides of his head.

But it all works. The contrast between the stylized protagonists and their often-dangerous environment makes for an oddly intuitive sort of balance, a yin and yang effect.

Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand are soothing and wise as Poppa and Momma, corn farmers who till and protect their own land and impart to their young ones the importance of "making your mark." To them this means pushing past your limits and fears and finding your place in the world.

That's easy for brash, bruising brother Buck (Marcus Scribner) and headstrong sister Libby (Maleah Padilla,) but Arlo is a smallish (for his kind) and timid sort who gets rattled just by feeding the family "chickens." When a storm comes and a tragedy visits the family, Arlo finds himself washed far away into a strange land. Only Spot, who's caused them some trouble earlier with his foraging, is on hand for companionship.

The screenplay by Meg LeFauvre, who also helped pen this summer's "Inside Out" -- the first time Pixar has released two features in one calendar year, by the way -- keeps things simple, and inspired. Arlo and Spot encounter a variety of natural challenges and other dinosaurs, including a soaring band of pterodactyls and a fearsome family of tyrannosaurs (Sam Elliot voices the dad), but things often don't shape out as they first appear.

"The Good Dinosaur" isn't the top of the animation pyramid for Pixar, which has been in something of a trough lately after 15 years of one triumph after another. But being a step down from "Finding Nemo" and "Toy Story" et al isn't a bad place to be.

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