***/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras B+
screenplay by Meg LeFauve
directed by Peter Sohn and Bob Peterson
by Walter Chaw Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) is the runt in a frontier family of stylized dinosaur herbivores who struggles to live up to the example of towering Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) on the family farmstead. He's clumsy, though, and easily frightened, and when he finds himself incapable of killing a mammalian vermin (Jack Bright), he unwittingly causes the death of his father. Arlo joins forces with the vermin, eventually, dubbing him "Spot" (he's a little orphaned human boy) and relying on him to forage sustenance for him in the wild world outside. Spot, in return, relies upon Arlo for protection in the film's final set-piece as Spot is set upon by a flock of fundamentalist pterodactyls. Pixar's The Good Dinosaur is, in other words, a horror western about a frontier bespotted with monsters and monstrous ideologies, set right there at the liminal space--as all great westerns are--between the old ways and the encroaching new. It's far more disturbing than has generally been acknowledged and, in being disturbing, it offers a tremendous amount of subtext layered onto a deceptively simple story. It posits an Earth where the dinosaur-ending comet misses impact, leading to millions of years of evolved adaptations and ending, as the film begins, with the emergence of homo sapiens on schedule, but skittering around on all fours and howling at their saurian masters. The Good Dinosaur is an existential horrorshow.
Consider the campfire tale told by cattle rancher/T-Rex patriarch Butch (Sam Elliott), an explanation of scars with a frankly horrific coda that provides less a moral than a clarification that life is a brutal struggle often ending in absurd, horrible death. Lost in the rush to judge the film as just another children's entertainment about the little guy earning his stripes is that The Good Dinosaur's most direct antecedents are The Fox and the Hound in its denouement and Sartre in its overall outlook. Arlo's journey proves not his courage but his acceptance that life is fear and struggle. His mid-film encounter with a deranged dinosaur who's collecting a retinue of totemized sidekicks (birds and small mammals) he's assigned symbolic power speaks to the film's general conversation around myth as a means to contain chaos. It's very funny in the way that insane people who think they can ever be protected from the dark, or death, or even mosquitoes, is very funny. The Good Dinosaur is a sophisticated play on the essential, inexplicable terror of childhood. Consider that the corn silo Arlo's family constructs as bulwark against starvation is infiltrated, easily, by Spot. The climax of the picture is when the generally unflappable Spot learns fear. It leads to an epilogue where he and Arlo discover that the only illusion of safety is with others of your own kind; and that the only comfort in life is the promise that you'll die among loved ones instead of alone in the wilderness. Oh, and it's beautiful to look at, and has a sequence in there that's as good and for the same reasons as the Pink Elephants on Parade number in another Disney horrorshow, Dumbo. Excerpted from a longer review originally published here on December 25, 2015.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers The Good Dinosaur docks on Blu-ray in a breathtaking 2.35:1, 1080p transfer. For a computer-generated image, it looks absurdly organic and filmic, without any telltale digital embellishments to make it artificially "pop" at home. The scenery is so intricate and so dimensional that any sharpness- or contrast-boosting would be superfluous and probably criminal, and the controversial character designs not only make for a dynamic juxtaposition against these photorealistic environs, but also boast depths of colour and texture this presentation really brings to the fore. Best of all, none of that Pixar peaking happens here--blown-out whites finally appear to be a thing of the past. (The mind boggles at what a less parsimonious bitrate than the 24 Mbps average could've added to the proceedings.) The attendant 7.1 DTS-HD MA track replicates a lush soundmix, the surprising-for-a-dinosaur-movie highlight of which is Mychael and Jeff Danna's folksy, western-inflected score--it makes as thrilling a use of the discretes as any of the T-Rex hubbub. There's an undeniable gentleness to the audio compared to, say, Jurassic World, but the two storm sequences absolutely take no prisoners.
Extras reflect The Good Dinosaur's box-office underperformance in quantity if not quality: This is the first Pixar Blu-ray since Cars 2, I believe, where the bonus material didn't spill over onto a second disc. The HD content breaks down as follows.
Sanjay's Super Team (**/****, 7 mins.)
Sanjay Patel's semi-autobiographical animated short is about a little boy who finds a place in his heart for his father's religion once he imagines Hindu gods as the heroic characters on his favourite TV show. I don't know; I kind of think separation of church and state should apply at Pixar, and I miss when the goal of these pre-show appetizers was to be funny, not precious. At least this one doesn't have a singing volcano in it.
"Recyclosaurus" (6 mins.)
Pixar staffers' history of horsing around in the hallways steadily grew into an elaborate interdepartmental Olympics, and this themed challenge involved sculpting dinosaurs from discarded items stashed on the complementary junk-pile known in-house as "the free shelf." The rules forced artists to be even more ingenious than usual by prohibiting the drawing or painting of any elements, not that that stopped everyone. My personal favourite belonged to the Characters department: At first glance it looks like a sorry-ass hoard, but...you'll see.
"The Filmmakers' Journey" (8 mins.)
The spectre of non-disclosure agreements hovers over these special features. This piece admits that The Good Dinosaur was thrown into tumult when a new crew and director (Peter Sohn) took over in the middle of production and even reports the exact date that it happened, but as to what necessitated such a radical course correction, your guess is as good as mine. The focus is instead on first-timer Sohn's own Arlo-like rising to the occasion, and his being a humble, generous collaborator ("You're one of the greats, man," a fellow Pixartist tells him) is dwelt upon so much that it starts to seem like shade thrown ousted helmer Bob Peterson's way. Still, Pixar documentaries always make you feel warm and cozy and this one is no exception. Tony Kaplan and Erica Milsom directed.
"Every Part of the Dinosaur" (6 mins.)
"Truth to materials" is a Pixar mantra, which made animating dinosaurs difficult since there's no tangible frame of reference. So they studied elephants and giraffes, and amended said mantra to "Truth to characters." Whether this influenced or helped rationalize the decision to cartoonishly stylize the dinosaurs, it is not said.
"Following the T-Rex Trail" (7 mins.)
Production designer Ann Brilz took Sohn and co. on a field trip to the Oregon ranch of a family she knows, the McKays, to get a better feeling for the lifestyle of the T-Rexes within the film. The spotlight is on the eccentric McKays, who adopted six children from Haiti to turn their ranch into a true family-run operation. ("We hit the jackpot!" says daughter Clare. Her brother Luke then deadpans, "Or they did.") The McKays took the fish-out-of-water filmmakers on a herding run mimicked in The Good Dinosaur, but what resonated with Sohn was his strong and instant bond with the family, elegantly captured in this deceptively light segment.
Deleted Scenes (11 mins.)
Sohn introduces this section as well as three individual elisions comprising thumbnail sketches and scratch tracks. The most noteworthy scene sees Arlo's dad dying off camera while Arlo's back at the homestead; as Sohn says, it reduced Arlo to a passive spectator at a pivotal moment. Presumably none of this cut material predates the Peter Sohn era of production.
"Dino Bites" (4 mins.)
Directed by Andrew Gordon, this is a weird little series of extra-narrative vignettes featuring the characters at various stages mugging for the camera. This feels like a closing-credits montage that fortunately didn't pass muster, as it would've robbed the film of a certain melancholy afterimage by instantly reuniting Arlo and Spot.
"True Lies About Dinosaurs" (2 mins.)
The movie's poetic license--talking dinosaurs, for starters--is compared against what has been theoretically proven about prehistoric creatures.
"Hide and Seek" (1 min.)
Arlo and Spot play hide and seek for 59 seconds of your precious time.
U.S., Russian, and German trailers for The Good Dinosaur join a 4-minute infomerical for the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in rounding out the platter. DVD and digital copies of the film are included in the keepcase, natch.