Of Plasticine dinosaurs and muddled storytelling
If you’re going to tell a story that suggests the dinosaur-killing asteroid missed, then you should be prepared to follow through and explore the ramifications of that idea.
If you’re going to let several million years pass before your story begins, you should allow for “nature” to progress for all living creatures, not just a few. All of your creatures should be subject to the same rules that all of the other living things — plants, animals, birds, insects, bacteria — are subject to. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a misshapen ecology.
You’ll end up with The Good Dinosaur.
Basically, the film makes no sense as a story. It’s beautiful to look at, and an occasional interesting moment arrives and leaves, but overall it looks like the result of one of those “I know!” ideas that people have and they get all excited and have what they think are dynamite ideas and they work hard on them, but no one ever steps back and says “I don’t think the pieces are connecting very well.”
Pixar being Pixar, they never do things by half measures, as seen in the incredible landscapes that are based on U.S. government geological maps and data of Wyoming and Montana. It’s not all one-to-one correlation, there are made-up mountains and rivers and such, but the real places served as a base for software programs. Real mountains rise in rocky splendor, real rivers flow through canyons with liquid movement, real trees make up the forests, real clouds from puffy to intimidating thunderheads fill the skies — or so it looks. A common reaction from a viewer might be “I’ve been there.” Maybe not that exact spot, but you’ll be reminded of a hike, or camping in a forest, or fishing in a favorite river bend, or climbing up mountain sometime in your real life.
The details don’t just apply to the grand landscapes, either. One scene takes place in a shallow river edge where the water is just a few inches deep. We see how the light dances on the water surface, we see the sunshine reach the flattened, smooth stones that line the riverbed and we see it all bathed in a golden glow of late afternoon light.
But then we see a toy dinosaur made of green Plasticine as if some kid had dropped it there. Its skin is a smooth, featureless shape, its toes are just lumps of clay and its face looks like it was drawn by a 10-year-old.
The story was written for 10-year-olds, too.
Well, let’s be fair. While the story is typical Disney-Hollywood fare, it’s been around since someone thought that morals and lessons are important ingredients for stories. A frightened youth loses/has already lost one or both parents must face his, hers, fears and learn how grow up emotionally and mentally in the world. This generally requires a journey, help from unexpected friends, advice from an old sage or two, a threat or two to be overcome, and a triumphant return home.
The twist here is the youngster is a dinosaur, an apatosaurus named Arlo. True to the story, he’s the runt of the litter, and as the runt, he’s afraid of everything, including the family “chickens.” His older brother, Buck, and sister, Libby, dump on him for being such a weenie. He botches every task his father assigns him in trying to make a
man dinosaur of Arlo. Poppa builds a corn silo, and it’s good, so he gets to put his mark — a footprint — on the side. Buck chops down trees with his tail, and it’s good, so he gets to make his mark on the silo. Libby plows the field with her face, and it’s good, so she gets to make her mark. Momma does something extra — she’s the mother, what extra does she need to do? — and gets to put her mark on the silo. Arlo is a dweeb so he doesn’t get to put his mark there. (Buck and Libby, being competent and obedient, are like all the competent and obedient siblings in these stories: They don’t get to go on an adventure. They stay home and do extra chores to make up for the missing runt. That’s what you get for being normal, people.)
So — Poppa gives Arlo one last chance: trap the critter that’s been eating the family’s winter stash, then bash his head in with the club he’s going to be holding in his mouth. Of course, Arlo fails, and Poppa finally gets mad and makes Arlo come with him to chase after the critter. In the chase, Arlo gets hurt — of course — and Poppa gets swept away in a flash flood. Of course. Arlo, wracked with guilt, vows to do better, so the next time the critter shows up, he chases him and falls into the river and is swept away. Let the adventure begin!
This is a story that could be told with anyone — and, apparently, any thing — in the title roles. There is nothing in Good Dinosaur that shows how putting dinosaurs as the central figures can change the story. It’s just humans in dino disguise. But, it’s the meteor, see? It missed, and —
That’s the “I have a great idea!” moment. The meteor missed, and everything changed. Except it didn’t. As has been pointed out elsewhere. these dinosaurs never got the advantage of natural selection, the process that favors physiological change that gives a species an advantage in survival. They don’t have hands (except for the T-rexes and we all know how funny their hands are, giggle snort), they don’t walk on two feet, they don’t shrink in size so they don’t need as much food to survive the winter, they don’t even evolve feathers or fur. (Some raptors have a few feathers, Pixar’s bone to evolution, but even after all these millennia, the raptors never developed the ability to fly.) So they’re stuck with plowing the fields with their faces ’cause they didn’t develop many tools, either. To water the crops, they must suck in great amounts of water and blow it all back out like land-borne whales. They lift rocks and branches with their teeth, and, as Buck demonstrated, use their tails to cut down trees. (And those tails slice through easily, despite not having developed any bone or a hardened shell.) We see woven ropes knotted around containers, but we don’t see how the weaving is done. They’ve built themselves a dugout house — which has to be packed pretty full when everyone’s home — but we don’t see any outhouses. Maybe they just poop in the river. (It’s like in Pixar’s Cars — the characters drive up to the gas pump but have no hands or arms to pick up the nozzle, jam it into their own sides and squeeze the trigger. Some things humankind is not meant to know.)
This is where evolution got the dinosaurs when the meteor missed — hardly anywhere. The most realistic dinosaurs in the film at the beginning when we see the errant meteor blaze a trail overhead and some grazing dinos look up for a moment, then go back to grazing. That scene looks like it was
stolen lifted borrowed from the “Rite of Spring” section of the first Fantasia movie.
Everything else gets to evolve, though. Trees — both evergreen and deciduous — flowering plants, fruit-bearing plants, insects, birds (wait — birds? did some dinos evolve after all?) snakes (with hands, no less) and insects. Especially fireflies. Oh, the dinos do love them fireflies. In fact, maybe only fireflies. I saw no clouds of stinging flies, no dino blood-sucking mosquitoes, no biting ants, no multi-legged horrors crawling out from under a rock just as you’re dropping off to sleep.
The biggest beneficiaries of evolution in this universe are the mammals. This is actually where Good Dinosaur got a few things right. In the days of real dinosaurs, mammals were small, timid creatures trying to avoid getting stomped/chomped by the ruling species.
But this is not the world of real dinosaurs, or dinosaurs that act like real dinosaurs.
Tyrannosaurus rex has become to be known, through the fossil evidence, as a fearsome meat-eater. According to Pixar, though, if left alone they would evolve into — cowboys, complete with folksy, western accents and slang. Oh, they’re big and have huge teeth, but they evidently they don’t eat their own kind (i.e., other dinosaurs). They fight off rustling raptors by chomping down on them hard — then hurling them away. After a hard day of rustler flinging, they sit around a campfire and tell tall tales. And what are they cowboys of? Big, hairy, shaggy beasts — mammalian beasts. You’re supposed to read “buffalo” here, but “cowboys” is a Texas thing, don’t y’all know, so we’re gonna call ’em “longhorns.” And longhorns they are, a sort of amalgamation of buffalo and steer. Well, then, you ask, did horses evolve so that the “cowboys” could have something to ride on? No, they did not. The T-rexboys must chase the herd on foot. We also don’t see them, y’know, chowing down, either. Do the T-rexes slaughter the beasts, then roast them over an open fire? Or do they just jump on one and rip the thing apart with their teeth and swallow raw chunks, including the innards? Alas, we never find out. Someone decided such questions are too intense for young viewers, but I’d bet money some of those young viewers are asking that very question.
So there are some large mammals in this world. Which brings us to another set of mammals, without whom we’d have nothing to empathize with: humans. (Did the filmmakers, in addition to saying “what if the meteor missed?” also ask “what if humans walked with dinosaurs?” which opens a whole other paleontological/theological can of worms.) Remember that critter that kept getting into the dino family food? That was a feral boy, age indeterminate, who doesn’t talk, doesn’t walk on two feet, scratches himself and thumps the floor with his rear leg like a dog, and howls like a dog. He’s an orphan, of course, lost and alone, so he makes friends with the clumsy dinosaur, helping him find food, protecting him from threats such as the snake-with-hands, and goading Arlo into action, usually by biting him. However, as feral as he is, he’s still civilized enough to wear a breech clout (made of bark and leaves, evidently). All the humans wear something, though the “domesticated” dinosaurs don’t. (They don’t have genitals, either, so reproduction among them is one of those mysteries humans etc., etc.) We can’t have naked humans in a Hollywood movie, even feral ones (Mowgli, Tarzan), but it makes the dinosaurs that much more cartoony, separating them from the humans. The dinosaurs may be civilized, but they’re reptiles, after all, they’ll never amount to much. Later, when the boy meets a pack of humans, they all have clothes, too. Where do the clothes come from? Do the humans have a pact with the T-rexes to get the pelts of the longhorns who ended up as dinner? Are there other large mammals around that the humans hunt? Have humans developed tools to make them? The short scene with them gives us no clues.
And, yes, I said “pack” of humans. The humans communicate by howling, and they move mostly on all fours, However, their evolution gave them the same arms and legs we have now, which have developed to help us stand. We no longer are built to move like that, despite we see on the screen, and it looks difficult. Still, the last we see of the boy he’s standing on his own two feet. (If that isn’t a metaphor for the whole movie, I don’t know what is.)
All of the mammals, human and otherwise, fit better into this world than the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs are these plastic creations superimposed on the landscape; the mammals live in it.
Well, anyway, the boy — eventually we learn his name is Spot, arf, arf, arf — saves Arlo’s butt and they become fast friends. (Spot is more interesting as a character than Arlo, IMHO.) Arlo learns bravery and finds maturity by in turn rescuing Spot from ravenous pterodactyls, a flash flood (again) and against all other odds the writers can think of and —
Spoiler: Arlo goes home, and because he did something good, gets to put his mark on the silo next to Poppa’s (those prints are mud, how do they stay put in the rain?) because he’s now a hero because he saved the life of the boy who’s head he was supposed to bash in ’cause the boy was stealing their winter food but because Arlo failed to do that, he and Poppa had to try and catch the thief but they got caught in a flash flood that killed Poppa which made Arlo very sad and angry and later chased the boy again but got lost and without the help of the thief he would have starved to death, been trampled or killed in a flood and so he saved the thief from being eaten/drowned but was
man dinosaur enough to send the boy with his own people and finally made his way back after the harvest was in. Yup, he deserves a mark all right.
Dude, you’ll probably be saying, you’re putting way too much into this, man, it’s just a cartoon. And you’d be right. On the surface, the film can be a delight for all of the things we expect in a Pixar movie. But there is also something missing, something that pulls against the movie as a whole.
Pixar filmmakers are known for their meticulous and thoughtful preparation and production, not afraid to revamp or shut down a film they don’t think is working. This one reportedly got one of those revampings, but I think they went off on the wrong track. Instead of going where the idea took them, they put on the brakes and switched to an easier route. Questions they should have asked: After 65 million years, what would a dinosaur society look like? What would the dinosaurs themselves look like? Can tools really be used by picking them up in your mouth? (Though Arlo later does knock a pterodactyl out of the air by throwing a club that way)? Would humans develop a canine sense of smell and locomotion? Would humans and dinosaurs really get along? (Or, as Neil deGrasse Tyson points out, would they just eat us?) Instead, they gave us a kiddie cartoon with some of the most realistic settings ever seen in an animated movie. They pulled back from where the idea was taking them in favor of just another coming-of-age story. They spent a lot of time and effort in getting the settings perfect, but they are not extrapolations of landscapes of the age of dinosaurs. Walt Disney constantly was trying to make animated films “real,” but sometimes going real undermines all the other elements of the film. Realistic mountains and clouds, but cartoony dinosaurs, the central element of the film. It does not work.
There was so much potential here that was lost. I just wish the creators had the courage to follow some of the more interesting aspects of their great idea.