The latest manifestation of Disney/Pixar computer generated characters can be found in The Good Dinosaur. It is a lavish, beautiful, visually awesome film that captures a time and place that is sometimes volatile yet other times peaceful in truly stunning detail.
The landscapes are so visually arresting, it seems as if you are watching one of those old westerns with the high blue skies and the aesthetically pleasing but unforgiving terrain. But instead of a cowboy riding through the valleys and across mountains on his horse, we have a dinosaur named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) being ridden by a scrappy human child (Jack Bright) whom Arlo decides to call Spot.
In an alternate reality, the exposition establishes the fact that 65 million years ago an asteroid just misses earth. We then flash forward millions of years to what can ostensibly be thought of as an undetermined time where dinosaurs still rule the earth. Arlo lives on a farm with his siblings and parents, and they are intelligent creatures that have evolved to speak, till the soil, and harvest crops.
Director and writer Peter Sohn (who wrote the screenplay with 5 other writers) has obviously stayed close to the Disney formula that works, and I couldn’t help but to keep thinking of The Lion King as I watched the sweeping vistas and the wise, powerful father Apatosaurus Henry (Jeffrey Wright) teaching his son Arlo the ways of life.
One day Spot – who looks like a little caveman – gets into a trap and Arlo’s hesitation allows the child to escape. Henry brings Arlo along to track the child – in this world a boy is considered a “critter” trying to steal crops and must be dealt with.
During one of those volatile days – the weather seems to change very rapidly in The Good Dinosaur world – Henry is forced to save his son from a disaster (reminiscent of how Mufasa must save Simba from the stampede) at the cost of his own life. Seeing Henry futilely trying to scramble up a mountainside, I thought the only thing missing was the nefarious Scar.
Henry dies and, visions of Bambi dancing in my head notwithstanding, I checked in on my son who, along with many of the other kids in the theater, were upset by Henry’s death – Disney knows how to pull the little heartstrings.
Arlo valiantly goes back to working the farm to help get the harvest ready before the first snow, but when he sees Spot raiding the silo, he chases the boy and then they both fall into the river and are washed far away from the farm.
The rest of the story involves Arlo’s coming of age with Spot’s help – as Simba had a warthog and a meerkat as his guides. After at first blaming Spot for Henry’s death, Arlo comes to understand that it is not the boy’s fault and they slowly become friends.
Along the way home as the unlikely pair follow the river back to the farm, they encounter danger in the form of pterodactyls and velociraptors, who see Spot as nothing more than a tasty treat. Arlo and Spot fight back against these pernicious foes, and get some help from a Tyrannosaurus Rex family led by father Butch (Sam Elliot).
Butch is actually keeping a herd of cattle that “the rustlers” – the velociraptors – tried to steal. Extending the western motif, Arlo and Spot assist Butch and company in riding the herd until they can find a way for Arlo to get home.
There are also subtle social implications here – in an almost Planet of the Apes way – with humans being seen as animals and inferior. While this is a children’s movie and the complexity of the implications are never deeply explored, there are those moments when Spot is howling at the moon that may get your kids asking a few questions as mine did on the way home, but I found a few quick answers helped my son understand what was going on.
While some adults may find the story more than a little familiar, it entertained my son and the other kids in attendance. This is not a film that reaches for the narrative heights of The Lion King, but it is charming enough to keep the target audience satisfied as it is dazzled by the array of visual delights and scary characters chasing after our rather dynamic duo.
After the parade, the Thanksgiving turkey, and the football games are over, why not take the kids to see The Good Dinosaur? They will enjoy the film while you are blown away by the majestically conceived alternate reality that Sohn and company have created. It is a beautiful film that can be appreciated as a work of visual art that should not be missed.
Photo credits: movies.Disney.com[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B016N1K5F4]