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The Good Dinosaur

Disney-Pixar (November 25 2015), Walt Disney Home Entertainment (February 23 2016), one Blu-ray and one DVD plus Digital HD code, 94 mins plus supplements, 1080p high-definition widescreen 2.40:1, DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, Rated PG, Retail: $39.99

BD-3D edition also available separately.

Storyboard:

Pixar’s second release in a single year – the first time the studio has ever had such an arrangement – may have underwhelmed, coming as it did just months after the hugely layered and creative stimulus of Inside Out, but away from the theatrical spotlight glare, home video provides a chance to reassess the film (which ostensibly supposes how things may have turned out had the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs missed the earth) on its own merits.

The Sweatbox Review:

The Good Dinosaur‘s production travails have been well documented over the past two or three years the film has taken to get to the screen: at one point directed by Up‘s co-helmer Bob Peterson, the film switched tone, story and even cast members well into the recording process, as well as temporarily being suspended before it eventually reached the screen in a delayed (by over a year) release date that meant Pixar didn’t have a film ready for release in 2014 and ended up with two the following year. That the first of these wound up being the hugely critical and commercially successful Inside Out was never going to help whichever film came after it, and that misfortune landed upon The Good Dinosaur, which received polite and so-so notices in which the reviewers sometimes almost apologised for not liking it as much as Inside Out!

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My thought is that had The Good Dinosaur come to the screen as originally planned in 2014, it may have been better received, perhaps not as revered as most Pixar pictures, but still a bigger hit than it eventually became, before Inside Out would come and raise the bar yet again. In that scenario, the following film to that would be his summer’s Finding Dory sequel, and it would have been really interesting to see how that film fared, inevitably not reaching the heights of Inside Out and, as I am expecting, even the original Finding Nemo (the film, for me, remains looking about as redundant as Monsters University was, and clearly purgatory for director Andrew Stanton after his ambitious but terribly received John Carter Of Mars. In that alternate universe, is it Dory that might have sank at the box-office?

As it was, Inside Out did come first and and did make such a splash that The Good Dinosaur wound up not even being Oscar nominated against it, almost unheard of for Pixar’s track record and probably the last time for a while at least that the Lamp will risk putting out two films in the same year, and arguably too close to each other (with Inside Out coming to home video just weeks before The Good Dinosaur bowed theatrically and inevitably sucking up those family movie dollars). Could it also be that audiences, having been scared witless by the rampaging dinos of the biggest film of the summer, Jurassic World, had had their fill of the creatures (and were waiting for the spectacle of Star Wars: The Force Awakens)?

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It wasn’t fair that Disney pulled The Good Dinosaur from some theaters to squeeze in more Star Wars showings, but the lower than expected box-office might also be attributed to the fact that we like our movie dinos big and scary, and not cute and cuddly, as Amblimation’s We’re Back! and Disney’s own Dinosaur have previously attested against the only moderate success of Universal’s saccharine Land Before Time continuing video franchise. Certainly the characterisations of The Good Dinosaur put the film in the latter camp, and aimed the film at a lower than usual age group for Pixar movies, which routinely appeal to families and contain more than their fair share of smart material for adults. It was perhaps this surprising tone that caused word of mouth to be less than stellar, although my own feeling was always that this looked like a kids’ cartoon, fair and square…and I couldn’t really see anything wrong with that.

Pixar love their alternate universes (the Cars world continues to completely baffle me) and here the conceit tackles the notion of an Earth that didn’t get hit by the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs millions of years ago, leaving them to develop into an Aardman Animation-like species (check out those teeth!) that, for the ease of storytelling, pretty much resembles a human society anyway (and, being a cartoon, we won’t mention the moon!). This asteroid-missing sequence, as seen in the trailers, seems over far too soon, opening the film in a bit of a rush so as to explain the hows and the whys, but feeling quicker than it did in the previews and without any weight. It was played as a gag in the trailer: here, despite the faster nature, the laugh doesn’t register.

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So, the meteor misses and dinos reign supreme, but millions of years later the unstoppable process of civilisation comes to the still fairly desolate landscape that mostly now resembles the old west, where cute baby dino Arlo’s family run a “farm” that could have come ripped right from an old John Ford picture. These earlier scenes where Arlo hatches from his egg may recall Dumbo or Bambi for obvious reasons, although again the film that I kept being most reminded of was Finding Nemo, of which The Good Dinosaur is of close kin (in many ways, my initial glib assertion that it may as well have been named “Finding Dino” actually turns out not far from the mark). After some fairly heavy-handed storytelling about making a difference in the world, little Arlo gets the plot moving when he encounters a human boy – yes, it seems humans evolved after all – and loses his Pop (in the usual Disney tradition) as they head out to catch him for eating their stored food.

Soon out in the wilderness, Arlo and the feral boy, whom he eventually takes on as a pet and names Spot, find themselves on the long trek home: Arlo back home, and Spot to his own kind. Along the way they meet what used to be called a colorful cast of characters, from a comical triceratops and crazed, vulture-like pterodactyl scavengers to a bunch of what can only be termed cattle ranchers in the form of a trio of T-Rexes, in scenes that are often over too quickly, while conforming to the usual journey-movie tropes of having to find shelter, food and putting up with each other while overcoming incredible odds and not realising how mutually dependent they eventually become on each other as they grow to be closer fiends. (It can also be said that the whole asteroid missing Earth is classic misdirection: it plays no part other than to allow humans into the equation.)

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On anything but a child’s level, and with all these kind of cliches in play, The Good Dinosaur would fail to match up to anything in the storied histories of Disney’s and Pixar’s previous outings. The alternate reality doesn’t make much sense (if there are humans, why aren’t they killing the nice, or good, dinosaurs for food?) and just as with Cars one has to wonder why the dinos have to grow crops, have houses and use certain props. Likewise, Arlo is still an animal, and it’s really just the power of speech that separates him from the mute Spot, since he’s actually a smart little critter. Easily the funniest and most well animated thing in the movie, Spot also interests because he seems to be the target audience’s age: not only will they identify with him the most but he only goes to exemplify further that the film is, ultimately, a story for boys, as with Cars but for even younger eyes. For older fans of the Studio’s films, it could be said that The Good Dinosaur returns to the simpler feel of A Bug’s Life but without the smart natured humor and particularly clever comical asides.

That said, The Good Dinosaur wears its simple sweetness on its sleeve, and there’s nothing to say that every Pixar movie needs to be the pinnacle of super-layered filmmaking with multi-generational audience appeal. For the techno-geeks, there’s the usual innovative Pixar touch, in this case a unique visual blend to examine, with the childlike-evolved dinos placed within hyper-real backgrounds that works much better than it the idea would seem to suggest, and a brief but surreal moment when Arlo and Spot eat some “funny fruit”. But from its very title and colorfully rendered caricatured characters, this is clearly a children’s tale, where even the elements of danger are handled with a softeness of touch so as not to make them anything too frightful. One could imagine this being a preschool series on television, or maybe a picturebook come to life, with the rubbery dinos turning out to be utterly charming.

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In fact, it’s this slightly “old-fashioned” nature that ends up most appealing, from simple sequences that may feel episodic to some but come perfectly bite-sized for children, and a delightful if not exactly groundbreaking musical score that often plays up the western motifs among its more conventional moments. Best of all is the voice cast, not this time packed with a bunch of marquee names – though a few may be familiar and even somewhat surprising – but going old-school to find the right vocalists for the roles, with a sweet naivety to Raymond Ochoa’s Arlo and just the right sense of timing to the adult characters. Again, judged as one in the line of Pixar films, The Good Dinosaur could be seen as being a collection of all too-brief sequences that run though a selection of supporting characters that never really establish themselves (not far off the criticisms levelled at Disney’s animated films of the 1970s), and perhaps the revamped nature of the project’s production is evident in its slightly undercooked nature.

But even though it may have worked better as a short or featurette (there’s something here that has the feel of 1940s Disney), The Good Dinosaur‘s simpler scripting, gentler tone and overall softer approach mark it out as something special in its own right. The film may find Pixar treading water rather than innovating as usual, but in other ways The Good Dinosaur surprises in on its own terms and I can see how it would appeal to the younger set, who will find excitement and silly comedy buried in an easy to follow story. More than anything, it’s just nice to see a well-rounded and expertly made children’s film that contains not one fart gag, nor any inappropriate innuendo or disturbing scenes. There’s the Disney element of danger, of course, but this is also what kids thrive upon, and they should enjoy the rush knowing that everything will turn out right by the end. With solid and strong messages about friendship and believing in yourself, The Good Dinosaur is animated filmmaking that, for once, really is quality kid’s stuff.

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Is This Thing Loaded?

So what if The Good Dinosaur hasn’t gone down as one of Pixar’s more prestigious or successful achievements; the Studio has seen fit to still give it a decent disc treatment. Although restricted to just one Blu-ray disc housing both the feature and bonus material, this combo pack manages to squeeze in a fair amount of extras (the three-disc 3D set adds merely the extra dimensional disc), starting with the short that played with the main feature in its theatrical run, Sanjay’s Super Team. Clearly a hugely personal film for director Sanjay Bakshi (a commentary would be great but I guess we need to wait for the next volume of Pixar cartoons), this is one of Pixar’s simplest and sweetest but deep and emotionally resonant shorts…and I loved it! Far surpassing the frankly odd Lava that accompanied Inside Out, it’s incredible that shorts like this can find their way through the big studio system, and another indication of how, when Pixar lets their filmmakers fly with an original concept, they’re somehow able to straddle that line between art and commercialism, an independent approach with the finesse of major budget CGI. After a glut of spin-off cartoons and TV specials, it’s magic to see the Pixar Shorts unit back on track with this kind of film. Just phenomenal.

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True Lies About Dinosaurs is a brief kids lesson on the liberties The Good Dinosaur takes with the known facts in a fun way, with lots of glimpses at concept art, and Recyclosaurus brings us a taste of that famed Pixar spirit of fun as various crew departments create their own dinosaurs from recycled items for an internal competition celebrating production on the film. The Filmmakers’ Journey is the first of the more in-depth material (even if none too in-depth at just under eight minutes), although as predicted there’s nothing other than a brief mention of the film’s previous version here, focusing instead on how the new crew managed to turn around The Good Dinosaur in a shorter time as usual, and comparing the trials and tribulations Arlo goes through the film to what the crew had to endure during production, centering on director Peter Sohn’s experience. The “chapters” approach to the clip is a little overkill, since some only last a matter of seconds, but the headings are sometimes fun and this still manages to convey a good deal of sincere information in its length.

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The next couple of featurettes cover more of the detail in making an animated film, with Every Part Of The Dinosaur giving the animation crew a chance to speak about their craft and showing lots of the developmental process, explaining in visual terms much of what will later be expanded upon in a commentary track in its six minutes, and just the sheer amount of work involved in hand-animating a CG movie. The theme continues from a stance of wanting the film to feel authentic in Following The T-Rex Trail, following the filmmakers’ trip to a working farm to get a real perspective on herding with a family of cattle ranchers, really playing up the camaraderie between the crew and the adventure they shared, and when Sohn compares the McCays to Arlo’s family, one can totally make that connection if you hadn’t spotted it already.

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A staple of Disney’s discs are always the Deleted Scenes and The Good Dinosaur offers up four such moments with an added introduction from Sohn that runs them all together for over ten minutes. In a film with a simple but strong heart to begin with, you’re not going to find anything revolutionary here – and certainly not anything from Bob Peterson’s original version – so there’s nothing to really jump out and surprise. The Attack offers an alternate take on why Arlo is a timid kid, Building The Silo shows father and son bonding in an overlong sequence, and Waiting For Poppa is a different version of the storm sequence where Arlo stays home and only hears about his father’s fate secondhand. The right choice was made to change these moments for the film, though a bit of fun can be had in checking out Pixar’s shockingly bad attempt to cover the stand on which the monitor sits behind Sohn in his intros: a little bit of picture contrasting (or even just inserting an image afterwards) would have helped to hide this a little more, but once I noticed it I couldn’t un-see it!

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The previously mentioned feature-length Audio Commentary is next, and it’s certainly not kids’ stuff, being a highly technical discussion with Sohn and his co-filmmakers. It’s a very dry conversation between several participants that won’t be for the film’s more casual fans, with previous incarnations of the film touched on but never elaborated upon, although for those that really plugged in to this version, you’ll find a deeply intelligent and nourishing track that explains the simply phenomenal amount of thought and processes that Pixar’s artists go through even on something as younger-aimed and light as The Good Dinosaur, where every detail is scrutinised in service to supporting the characters and telling the overall story.

The remainder of the extras are more promotional in nature, although all very welcome, from the Dino Bites four-minute montage of TV channel bumpers showing the characters against vividly painted backgrounds, and more of the same in Hide And Seek (the closest we get to this disc having a new animated short featuring the characters, though very short at just one minute), to a trio of Theatrical Trailers for American, Russian and German release that cleverly make the film feel much more epic than the final result.

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Lastly, the usual Sneak Peeks play at the top of the disc or from the menu option, running through promos for the Disney Movies Anywhere-as-long-as-Anywhere-is-within-the-US service (still unavailable anywhere and everywhere around the world), redundant-looking sequel Finding Dory, the teaser for Disney’s next, Zootopia, and their Movie Rewards, Parks and Stores, plus what amounts to be an infomercial for the state of Wyoming that’s tied to the main feature – my guess is that the promotional nature had this featured in with the rest of the ads rather than as a featurette, but at near four minutes long it actually turns out to be a pretty nice clip!

Case Study:

A regular BD case comes sleeved in a lightly embossed slipcover, with inserts for the Digital HD and Movie Rewards code. A sticker promotes “over two hours of extras” but this must sneakily include the commentary track as by my count the video-based supplements total around 55 minutes, less than usual for a Pixar disc but more than covering the production well enough.

Ink And Paint:

As you would expect for a state-of-the-art digital transfer of a film made by one of the preimier producers of such fare and barely more than three months out of theaters, The Good Dinosaur looks exemplary on Blu-ray. The stunningly realised – and realistic – locations are rendered with such precision that I can’t believe the alternate 3D edition, which we were not provided for review, could really add much definition of depth to the image. On a well calibrated system, this is demo material, perhaps even more so than the more visually whimsical Inside Out, and even the supposedly polar-opposites of the hyper-real with the straight cartoon caricature of the characters somehow meshes together that other studios would struggle to pull off.

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Scratch Tracks:

Disney’s 7.1 track noticeably improves over the 5.1 mix that plays as the disc’s default, although the film’s brisk nature in moving on from scenes before they really establish themselves means that there aren’t really any stand-out demo moments even if things are proficient throughout. Not a film with a great deal of dialogue – it is, mostly, all just Arlo – it’s down to the score and sound effects to carry much of the drama, which the mix serves up without fuss. Like the intimate film itself, it’s small but perfectly formed.

Final Cut:

Of Pixar’s two releases in 2015, Inside Out may have grabbed all the plaudits for its creative innovation and The Good Dinosaur‘s troubled production may have led to a slightly underpowered – by Pixar terms – result, but it is neither bad or even mediocre and never warrants its “disappointment” reputation. Indeed, this is sure to make an impact on younger children who see it as one of their formative Disney films, which goes some way to account for the film’s solid box-office take (which saw it more than break even and should have avoided the suggestion that it was “Pixar’s first flop”). After all, a middling Pixar is still leaps and bounds ahead of the competition and there’s nothing to say that each film should hold multi-generational appeal (and Inside Out had buckets of that for those that need it).

Although not purely evident from its marketing, the great thing about The Good Dinosaur is that the final film is not afraid to be a straight childeren’s movie. Not only is this a delight in itself, but it’s so neat to see a company as big as Pixar serving that demographic so smartly with an outing of such quality. With a solid representation on a disc that covers far more bases than Disney’s own animated releases seem to do nowadays, the added highlight here is the inclusion of the sublime Sanjay’s Super Team theatrical short. Combined with the sweet feature film, which may aim itself at a younger age than usual for a Pixar blockbuster but is none the worse for it and certainly contains heart while never dumbing down as much as the Cars spin-offs, when they say they don’t make kids movies like they used to, point them in this direction!

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?


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