Sunday, January 24, 2016

Pixar Filmography, Volume 4: "The Good Dinosaur," A "Good" and Amazing Adventure

The Good Dinosaur represents an addition to two famous aspects of Pixar’s near-30-year history. First off, it contains another “what if” premise. What if toys came to life when children weren’t looking? What if monsters scared kids at night because it’s their job? What if mankind had to leave earth and somebody forgot to turn off the last robot? And in this recent case, what if the asteroid that, destroyed dinosaurs millions of years ago actually missed earth? 

Arlo's family on the farm
What proceeds is a clever take on what dinosaurs would be like today, imagining leaf-eaters as farmers and meat-eaters as cowboys. It’s as if John Ford directed his version of The Land Before Time. One could call it “The Land In Another Time”. All subtle and playful evolutionary undertones notwithstanding, The Good Dinosaur is also a visually-amazing and viscerally-rousing experience. The story follows young and fearful Arlo as he gets lost down the river one day and journeys to get home, with the unlikely help of a human boy named Spot. (Did I forget the mention the twist on "a boy and his dog"?) The landscapes and natural elements are truly breathtaking, adding to the episodic and emotional journey of these characters. You'll need Kleenex's for at least one or two tear-jerking scenes, including a moment where Arlo illustrates his missed family with sticks and as Spot follows suit.

Spot and Arlo light up the night
The other aspect this film represents for Pixar is that it has, perhaps, the longest production of any feature film at the studio. Originally conceived by veteran story supervisor Bob Peterson (who also worked on Monsters, Inc. and Up), the production reportedly lasted six years with various story issues and layoffs at the studio, partly due to the three-year lump they faced between 2011 and 2013. According to Pixar executive vice president Jim Morris, they wanted to make sure the film was “great”. Peterson was removed from the project in 2013 and moved onto another Pixar film, while artist Peter Sohn replaced him as director. Even the film’s major cast (including Neil Patrick Harris, John Lithgow, Judy Greer, and Bill Hader) was replaced due to story changes, and the original theatrical release date was moved from May 2014 to November 2015. 

T-rex "cowboys" around the campfire
Like Mother Nature, as Butch the T-rex (voiced by Sam Elliot) says around a campfire in one scene, the filmmakers couldn’t outrun the aforementioned issues. But they did get through them with determination, skill and heart, like Arlo and Spot. The final film may not be great, as Morris and company had hoped. But it is still worthwhile in its visuals (probably the most photo-realistic since WALL*E) and in its story of perseverance and overcoming fear. Sohn’s technical and emotional commitment really shows, particularly in the film’s quiet moments that echo such classics as Dumbo (a personal influence on Sohn) and Finding Nemo. And you may never think of farmers and ranchers and, of course, dinosaurs the same way again. 

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