We’re in award season now, which means I’m required to face a barrage of movies that are full of depressing elements, from forbidden romances, to child soldiers, kidnapping and rape, child molestation cover-ups, murder and revenge. Which fine. It’s something I steel myself for this time of year. But gang, I wasn’t prepared for Pixar to put out a movie that had me yelping with fear and gaping in horror. I was not prepared for the depressing drama of The Good Dinosaur.
I’ll admit, I haven’t been watching trailers for this flick. It’s Pixar. I knew I was going to see it. So I allowed myself the rare film-critic luxury of knowing next to nothing about The Good Dinosaur beyond it being a boy and his dog tale, where the boy is a young dinosaur and the dog is a human child. I was delighted to discover that writer-director Peter Sohn (“Partly Cloudy”) created a dino-centric Western that reimagines towering T-rexes as loping longhorn ranchers, long-necked Apatosaurus as hard-working crop farmers, and sharp-toed raptors as rascally rustlers. It plays well into the plot of Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) forging through a wilderness and adventure he never imagined. However, how we get to that plot rattled me hard. And in the film’s runtime I don’t think I recovered. By it’s big sappy ending, I just felt numb.
See, Arlo is the runt of the litter of Apatosaurus. His big brother Buck is a brute who can easily toss massive logs with his mighty neck. His sister Libby is clever, tricking and teasing Buck into helping her complete her chores in a snap. But Arlo, whose only job is to feed some gruesome-looking chickens, can’t do anything right. He’s tiny. He’s fretful. He’s a quitter, always wailing for his Momma (Frances McDormand). So, his Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) urges Arlo to push past his fears, tasking him to catch the varmint that’s been raiding the family’s corn silo. But when confronted with a snarling human child suffocating in his trap, Arlo panics and sets “Spot” free. Not giving up on the thief or his son, Poppa leads the chase along the roaring river’s edge, with a whining Arlo lumbering behind. Then, we have the Mufasa moment.
Poppa realizes too late the danger of the brewing storm. He manages to push Arlo to safety, but floodwaters rip him away as his horrified son watches helpless. This is all in act one! Soon thereafter, it’s Arlo’s spiteful chasing of Spot (Jack Bright) that gets him swept away, forced to forge an uneasy alliance with this bitty beast to find his way home.
Now, there are moments of the film I liked a great deal. Visually, it’s lovely, especially in its lapping waters, waving grains, and luscious color schemes. Cleverly animated with a physicality that dovetails human and dog behavior, Spot is undeniably adorable, even when he’s doing gross business like ripping a giant beetle’s head off with his teeth. There’s also some enjoyable interactions, like when Arlo stumbles across Forrest Woodbush (Sohn), a frightened stegosaurus who not only employs camouflage but also a cadre of creatures with fearsome names (“Fury,” “Destructor” “Dream Crusher” and “Debbie!”) to keep him safe. And as a dedicated Jaws fan, I relished at the revamp of its classic scar comparison, which climaxes with a friendly, Sam Elliott-voiced T-Rex growling, “and I drowned that third gator in a pool of my own blood!” But for all its good stuff, The Good Dinosaur is so studded with grief, tragedy and failure that I wasn’t having much fun.
Arlo not only witnesses the death of his father, but then proceeds to be washed down a rushing river, a visceral reminder of his Poppa’s all-too-recent demise. He’s repeatedly concussed, falls down cliff sides, gathering painful-looking bruises and scrapes across his vibrant green skin. He experiences furious flashbacks to trauma. And perhaps most disturbing, he crosses paths with a psychotic cult of storm-worshiping pterodactyls, led by the unnervingly zealous Thunderclap (Steve Zahn). After the screening, some of my colleagues wondered aloud if The Good Dinosaur would be too scary for kids. Judge your own brood’s mileage accordingly, but personally I don’t think it will be for most. As adults, we tend to forget how scary being a kid can be. You’re small and defenseless, and the world is so big and unknowable. To The Good Dinosaur’s credit, it put me back in touch with that anxiety. That’s just not what I was expecting or hoping for.
But I think kids will connect to Arlo. They’ll relate to his desire to impress his parents, and his fear of a world that seems knit together with chaos. They’ll thrill over his adventures, for better and worse, and celebrate his hard-earned victories. Basically, yeah, I suspect your kids will like and handle this movie better than I did. But maybe you should steel yourself. After days of reading about the terrorist attacks that have been hitting abroad, and increased security measures as well as vigilante threats and violence at home, I thought a Pixar movie would be my solace from the fearful thoughts that have been rattling around in my brain. Nope.
The Good Dinosaur opens Wednesday.