The pretty good dinosaur
By now, most moviegoers have probably heard something about the fraught production of Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, which suffered from delays, director and cast changes, and the eventual overhaul of its entire story. And although this has happened before, it feels like the first time that the result might cause Pixar to rethink some of its basic assumptions—even more so than Brave, which won an Oscar for some reason. In its broad outlines, The Good Dinosaur is the most generically structured of all the studio’s films, which seems to reflect a retreat from additional risk. While a film like Finding Nemo, which I watched again recently, feels as if it’s trying to squeeze every drop of inspiration and delight from the possibilities of its setting and characters, this movie feels oddly underpopulated: its world doesn’t seem to exist beyond the road that Arlo the dinosaur travels. If you were feeling charitable, you could call this a welcome return to simplicity, but it seems less like a creative choice than a consequence of the movie’s troubled development, in which large swaths of material were cut and the gaps never fully restored. The really damning thing about the film is that it doesn’t seem all that interested in the dinosaurs themselves: you could change every character to a different species, or even to human form, and retain the same script with minimal changes. It’s nothing like the Pixar films that seemed inexhaustibly curious about what it might like to be a toy, a fish, or even a car.
Yet it slowly began to grow on me. In part, this was because when I saw it yesterday with my daughter, I’d somehow managed to avoid hearing anything about it aside from its basic premise—I hadn’t even seen any trailers. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover, for instance, that it’s essentially a shaggy-dog western, of the kind that only the Coen brothers seem interested in making in live action these days. (The casting of Frances McDormand and Sam Elliott in small but important voice roles feels like a nod to its inspiration.) Back when I reviewed Brave, I borrowed a phrase from Norman Mailer in describing it as “smart tactics in the service of no strategy whatsoever.” The Good Dinosaur is mostly the opposite. Given a sound if predictable structure, the movie uses it as an excuse to offer up a series of disconnected episodes, not all successful, but often compellingly strange and relaxed. In the past, I’ve gently criticized Pixar for falling back on nonstop action: there’s always something happening in most of its movies, and it rarely allows itself the evocative moments of quiet that we find in someone like Miyazaki. For all its flaws, The Good Dinosaur is refreshingly content to give us scenes in which nothing much seems to be going on, and even if this resulted from a script that was never fully realized, its tone is more intriguing than much of what the studio has recently seemed capable of doing.
And it feels weirdly like a step in the right direction, provided that Pixar can emerge with the right lessons from the experience. (I should note, by the way, that I haven’t seen Inside Out, which feels like a crucial data point in any such discussion.) Years ago, in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson wrote of Martin Scorsese: “His search for new subjects is absorbing and important.” What he meant by this, I think, is that Scorsese had already more than proven himself within a certain range of subject matter, and that as he grew older, the new directions in which he took his career became fascinating in themselves—although it’s worth remembering that his greatest late critical and popular success, The Departed, was a triumphant return to what he did best. I feel much the same way about Pixar. With the Toy Story franchise, it perfected the kind of movie for which it will always be known, and each story it tackles now will matter both for its own sake and as part of the journey of the studio as a whole. We get an even better glimpse of this in the short “Sanjay’s Super Team,” which plays before The Good Dinosaur. It’s the autobiographical story of a young boy whose daydreams turn the gods of the Hindu pantheon into a squad of action heroes, and the result is so startlingly fresh that it reminds us that Hollywood animation, which has plumbed seemingly every fairy tale for material, has yet to do much of anything with the inner lives of ninety percent of the world’s population.
And my daughter liked The Good Dinosaur as well, even if a few of the more intense scenes prompted her to close her eyes. It’s a beautifully rendered movie, although lauding a Pixar movie for its visual and technical achievements reminds me of what Roger Ebert said in his review of Jeremiah Johnson, which is that praising a movie for beautiful scenery is like praising a car because its tires are round. Pixar, like its parents Apple and Disney, is a huge corporation that needs to find ways of marshaling its resources toward creativity, heart, and innovation even as the stakes involved grow immeasurably vast. (The Good Dinosaur cost something like $200 million, which makes its oddball qualities even more remarkable—and leaves us with the impression that Pixar wouldn’t have released it in its current form if its genesis had followed a smoother path.) Blinn’s Law implies that its movies will grow ever more gorgeous and detailed, and that any problem that can be addressed by throwing money and people in the right direction will be triumphantly solved. What remains less certain is the part of a movie that depends entirely on one person thinking through a story and its implications. In a sense, we can all take comfort from its occasional struggles: if this is hard even for Pixar, it shouldn’t be any easier for the rest of us. The Good Dinosaur isn’t a great movie, but it’s more encouraging that it turned out to be pretty good, and it could only have been made by a studio that still knows how to evolve.