In Defense of ‘The Good Dinosaur’

So I finally went to see The Good Dinosaur.

Now, I’m a huge Pixar fan.  Like huge.   I own all the movie in some media format (yes, I still have the VHS versions of their first few releases), I can quote large portions of the films and frequently enjoy sneaking references into everyday conversation, and I recently ran a 10K at Walt Disney World dressed as one of the Incredibles.

That’s me on the left.  My mother made our tutus, for the record.  We couldn’t convince my father to wear one, too. 

That being said, I will admit that I was a bad fan.  I’d been following rumors and news about The Good Dinosaur for years, back to when it was still The Untitled Pixar Movie About Dinosaurs.  I waited as the release date was pushed back, and pushed back again, and pushed back again, all the while remaining optimistic—well, as optimistic as I ever am—that the delays meant that Pixar was fighting to have the story told a certain way and that the end product would be beyond anything I’d expected.

So when TGD finally opened this past November, I was really excited.  I didn’t see it opening week, as I always feel a little bit awkward going to really crowded kids movies by myself, but I told myself I’d catch it the next weekend.  And that was when I began to hear the grumbling. 

While there were some fairly positive reviews and even more praise given to certain aspects of the film, the consensus was, for the most part, that this was a flop.  I couldn’t have been more shocked.  With the exception of Cars 2 (which most people pretend just doesn’t exist), there’s no Pixar film that could actually be considered a legitimate flop.  Toy Story and Toy Story 2 have 100% ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, for crying out loud, and Pixar as a studio has only progressed from those earlier films.

So being the researcher that I am, I started digging.  What was it about TGD that just wasn’t clicking with audiences?  In the end, it seemed that the biggest problem was that parents felt that this wasn’t a kid’s movie, and older viewers really just didn’t like the story.  Pixar is typically a master of producing stories that are able to resonate with viewers of all ages—there’s comedy and flashy characters for the kiddos and some heartfelt or nostalgic lesson for the adults.  I will freely admit that I’ve cried in numerous Pixar movies. 

Seriously, if you didn’t cry in Up or Toy Story 3, there’s a chance your heart is two sizes too small.

To make things worse, a lot of people were also comparing TGD to Inside Out, which wasn’t fair but was also rather unavoidable.  New Pixar films are always going to be compared to the old ones, and since Inside Out had only come out a few months before, the comparisons were that much more stringent.

Which is how I ended up being a bad fan and skipping TGD.  I figured I’d catch it once it hit the dollar theater, when it wouldn’t hurt my pocketbook so much if I ended up not liking it and where the conspicuously child-free seats next to me wouldn’t seem so odd.  Following this plan, I paid my $3 last weekend and forced myself to keep an open mind while I watched the adventures of a little Apatosaurus named Arlo.

The best way to describe TGD?  It’s sort of adorable.  Is it my favorite Pixar movie?  Not by far.  Is it the worst animated film I’ve seen?  Definitely not.  If TGD had been made by any other studio, it probably would’ve done wonderfully at the box office, but with Pixar having such a strong tradition of excellent films, TGD does probably fall on the lower end of their spectrum. 

But like I said, comparisons aren’t fair, and just looking at TGD as its own film, it is most definitely sort of adorable. 

While the story is fairly simple—lost child trying to find his way home—the clever subversion of tropes and some outstanding technological achievements really help keep things interesting. 

Arlo and his family are fairly typical, with the proud parents, the brawny older brother, the clever sister, and the runt.  While there really wasn’t anything unique here, I enjoyed the simple relationships built within this family and the way they played out on the farm.  Making the Apatosauruses farmers made for some fun scenes, especially plowing the field and later watering the corn, and it provided a natural way for each of the children to make their mark.

This part managed to be both heartwarming and discouraging for me, as I believe everyone strives to make their mark in some way, but I’m 26 and I still don’t feel as if I’ve made any sort of lasting impression in the world. 

But I digress.  It was pretty obvious that Arlo becoming lost was going to be somehow related to his efforts to make his mark, but I wasn’t expecting the loss that really pushed him to try and overcome his fear.  Seriously, I was not expecting Poppa Henry to die.  And especially not like that.

It was a little too much like Mufasa’s death for me not to gasp loudly along with all the kids old enough to realize what had happened to the older dinosaur.

Maybe that was why parents deemed this movie ‘unfit for children.’  They’re still upset by Mufasa’s death, and here was Poppa Henry’s death, ready to traumatize a whole new generation. 

Seriously though, the loss of his father was really the catalyst for Arlo’s unexpected journey (just like Simba; there are actually a lot of The Lion King parallels here), but it was also what helped him grow into a dinosaur worthy of making his mark.  And to me, that was really the point of the movie, being willing to fight and make sacrifices for the ones you love.  We see this with Spot as he continuously protects Arlo and then with Arlo as he lets Spot go to be with other humans.  Arlo learns from his father’s sacrifice and helps someone who has become dear to him, even though it meant losing the only friend he had.

When it comes right down to it, the power of relationships was what TGD was trying to convey, and I feel like that’s what a lot of parents overlooked.  They were too worried about their kids seeing a pterodactyl eat a poor innocent critter or a human child/dog (really that’s the best description for Spot) rip the head off a giant bug or a rotten fruit-induced acid trip to grasp the deeper story.  Those were just attention grabbers in a journey meant to show kids the value of family and friendship and the importance of helping others.  And aren’t those lessons every parent wants their children to learn?  I don’t have any kids of my own, but I would definitely prefer a world where kids grow up wanting to do the right thing and trying to build healthy, loving relationships with those around them. 

But maybe that’s just me.

But it wasn’t just the bonds between the characters I liked.  I also have to give credit to the background animators for this film.  The scenery overall was absolutely gorgeous

I mean, just look at that!  It totally feels like I’m back out in Montana, hiking through the mountains and soaking in all the natural beauty.  There were a few times that I found myself too caught up in the scenery to care about what Arlo and Spot were doing.  Definitely props to the background animators.

The music, too, deserves a mention.  The western and cowboy motifs accentuated the setting and made Arlo’s trip feel more like an adventure rather than a desperate journey to find home.  It also helped make the scenes with the T-rexes even more amazing—Butch, Ramsey, and Nash were probably my favorite characters.  Making one of the fiercest dinosaurs known to man a group of ranchers was a brilliant idea, and the herding and campfire scenes provided a good opportunity to bring back in those western musical themes.  And then “Goodbye Spot!” I got a little teary-eyed.  Two thumbs up for the Danna brothers, for sure. 

So what’s the point of all this?  Basically it’s a shout-out.  A shout-out to all those bad fans like me who let themselves be swayed by bad reviews and a call to all those parents afraid to let their kids watch this movie because of a few ‘questionable’ scenes.  The Good Dinosaur isn’t Pixar at the top of its game, but it’s still a wonderful movie, with fun characters, fantastic visuals, and a heartwarming story that will make you want to go home and give your family big hugs.  There’s so much sweetness and poignancy packed into this film that it would be a shame to miss it because of negative reviews. 

So don’t.  Go see it at the theater or buy it when it comes out in a few weeks.  Let people know that The Good Dinosaur is so much more than the reviews make it out to be.  Pixar doesn’t make bad films, but sometimes you have to pay a little closer attention to really appreciate the story, and if you take the time to watch The Good Dinosaur, I promise you’ll come out with a smile on your face and a deeper appreciation for the ties that bind us all together.

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