American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Meet Jack, the Ankylosaurus. He's a dinosaur action figure without a movie. He had a movie once, but he was, as many actors have been, cut from the action. Adrien Brody was infamously cut down from a lead to a supporting actor in "The Thin Red Line," but Jack had his moment along with a few other herbivores at the 2013 D23 panel discussion on "The Good Dinosaur" and his character builders can be consoled that he made it to action figure status.
As dinosaur fans, we've been looking forward to Disney and Pixar's "The Good Dinosaur," and while it had plenty of feel-good moments, the movie itself was too familiar and at its center was a disappointingly unlikable character: Arlo. The first sign of trouble was at D23 Expo in Anaheim two years ago.
At the Expo, director Bob Peterson was scheduled but instead production designer Daniel Lopez Muñoz, character art director Daniela Strijleva and set art director Noah Klocek explained the process of designing and filming an animated feature about a world that could have evolved is the asteroid had missed the earth and not killed all the dinosaurs.
At that time, the plot was about an agricultural society in a manner similar to the Midwest in the 1930s, a time when farming was supporting a family and not industry as one panelist explained. Pixar was looking at a society of herbivores and chose five types of dinosaurs: Apatosaurs, Stegosaurs, Triceratops, Ankylosaurs and Parasaurolophuses. Each had a specific task. The "Appies" plowed the land. The "Stegs" were the threshers. The "Trikes" were like bulldozers. The "Anks" were trucks. The "Paras" were the pickers. That was the concept in 2013, but that's not what you'll see on screen in 2015. There was an unnamed threat and at D23 Expo in 2013, some people thought the carnivorous dinosaurs would be the bad guys.
"The Good Dinosaur" was conceived by Bob Peterson who was originally slated to direct and is credited as one of five writers that include the director who replaced him, Peter Sohn, as well as Erik Benson, Meg LeFauve and Kelsey Mann. At its most basic, the movie is about a boy and his dog except in this case the boy is a young Apatosaurus named Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) and the dog is a young grunting human boy who Arlo calls Spot (Jack Bright). The six-to-seven-year-old boy Spot has no spots, which must be part of the joke. Arlo and Spot are concepts from the original take, but they are no longer in the Midwest. Instead of vast flat lands, we have rocky hills and deep canyons, the red mesas of Monument Valley and the snow-capped mountains of the Rockies.
"The Good Dinosaur" keeps the original concept that the Earth was never hit by an asteroid. The dinosaurs never became extinct and now rule the world. "Rule" might be a bit misleading because we see no evidence of a larger government body at work or larger social groups than a nuclear family in this American Northwest (below the Canadian border if Canada existed) setting. You won't see the Stegosaurs, the Triceratops, the Ankylosaurs or the Parasaurolophus. You won't see an agrarian society. You will see a nuclear family oddly isolated.
On a farm at the foot of Claw Mountain, Arlo and his brother Buck (Marcus Scribner) and his sister Libby (Maleah Padilla) are born from the same clutch of eggs, with Arlo being from the unusually big egg, but ending up being not only the runt of this litter, but most fearful. He doesn't want to leave the safety of his egg. Once out, he's afraid of everything. He's afraid of feeding the chickens. These chickens aren't like any of the chickens at Old McDonald's Farm or anything that KFC uses. They are a bit bigger and tougher and they scare Arlo whose chore is to feed them.
Arlo is scared of bugs, too—even tiny bugs, but his father, Henry (Jeffrey Wright), shows him that sometimes bugs can be quite glorious. His father shows him how to make glow worms fly and illuminate the night. That's a beautiful image that's repeated later between Arlo and the boy. While Libby and Buck do well enough with their farm chores and earn the right to put their foot print on the rock silo where they store their corn, Arlo fails. Finally, Henry tells Arlo he might earn his right if he captures the rascally vermin that keeps breaking into the silo and eating their corn.
Arlo almost does, but he's supposed to club the critter to death and that's where the problem lies. The vermin is a boy and Arlo allows the boy to escape only to be forced by his father to hunt the critter down. Arlo and his father Henry follow the critter's tracks to the river, but as it starts to rain, the tracks begin to disappear. Henry urges Arlo to hurry down the rocky paths cut over the centuries by the river. If you've been in the desert and are familiar with canyons and gullies carved out from hard rock, then you'll know there's a danger of flash floods. Just this last September, there was a flash flood in Utah that swept away and killed 16 people.
In this sequence of "The Good Dinosaur," one might be reminded of another scene where a father pushes a son to safety but dies. In "The Lion King," Simba waits in the gorge for his father, Mufasa, misled by his uncle Scar. Scar's henchmen the hyenas help start a stampede and Mufasa gets Simba to safety, but through Scar's treachery, ends up being trampled to death by the wildebeest.
Like Simba, Arlo survives, but with a lot of guilt. Eventually, Arlo ends up in the river, and is lost miles away from home. He, predictably, must depend upon Spot to help him find food. Spot is more together than your average six-year-old human. He can sniff out danger. He's more at home on all fours than going bipedal. He has no fear and he saves Arlo more than once. Together, Arlo and Spot struggle to find their way home by searching for the Claw Mountain and the river which flows around it.
Along the way, they meet a few colorful characters such as the pet collecting Styracosaurus (Sohn) whose horned frill is home to a variety of pets including his beloved Debbie and Dreamkiller who protects him "from having unrealistic goals." He wants Spot and competes with Arlo to name the feral child. One wishes more was made of this character, who is potentially funnier than Arlo.
Arlo then helps a gang of vulture-like Pterodactyls whose leader, Thunderclap (Steve Zahn), is like an opportunistic backwoods preacher who believes "the storm will provide." Although Thunderclap initially sounds like a search-and-rescue leader, we soon learn he's a search-and-eat opportunist. That horrifies the herbivore Arlo, especially when Thunderclap wants to liberate Spot to be his lunch.
Arlo and Spot are rescued from the Pterodactyls by a group of Tyrannosaurus cowboys. The cowboys headed by Butch (Sam Elliott) also threaten to eat him and Spot, unless Arlo and Spot help them. Butch and his rambunctious daughter (Anna Paquin) and fun-loving son (A.J. Buckley) are searching for their herd of longhorns. Spot sniffs them out and Arlo, with the help of Spot, help Butch find the rustlers (Velociraptors). This adventure gives Arlo a new-found confidence that aids him on the final part of his journey home when the Pterodactyls return. (For Pixar fans, John Ratzenberger voices Earl, a Velociraptor.)
The animation varies between the more cartoony dinosaurs and the gorgeously realistic Western backgrounds, water and vegetation. It's almost like the attempts of introducing animation into real background, but it doesn't always work—mostly because Arlo as a character isn't particularly appealing. Will any kid be able to relate to Arlo? Perhaps a few, but they will be too frightened to venture out into strange world and express an opinion. For the rest of the world, one filled with adults and boisterous girls and boys, Arlo is the kind of person one either pities or picks on.
At D23 Expo in 2013, "The Good Dinosaur" was scheduled for release on May 30, 2014 with the Monsters University short "Party Central." Instead, "Party Central" preceded "Muppets Most Wanted." "The Good Dinosaur" opened on Nov. 25, 2015 and was introduced by the animated short, "Sanjay's Super Team." "Sanjay's Super Team" is about a young boy's love for superheroes and his father's attempts to get his son to be more respectful to the Hindu deities. Directed by Sanjay Patel, the short displays more interesting possibilities than "The Good Dinosaur.
Instead of making herbivores interesting "The Good Dinosaur" fell back on the threat of carnivores. One wishes the story had been set around the Tyrannosaurus family with more than a cameo appearance by the only interesting herbivore, the Styracosaurus. It's a nice change that the Apatosaurus are not represented as fainting and helpless as in the recent "Jurassic World," but the world isn't fully imagined. Why is the Apatosaurus family so isolated? How do the carnivores and the herbivores function together in this alternative reality? How do herbivores meet other herbivores?
Then at the more personal level: Why the Styracosaurus and not the Ankylosaurus? Jack the Ankylosaurus was the not good enough dinosaur. The Disney store is selling an action figure for Jack the Ankylosaurus. Toys "R" Us is selling a set of 25 plastic dinosaurs that features Triceratops as well as the Ankylosaurs although the Triceratops also don't appear in the animated feature. That means there are toys for characters that never made it into the film. That makes this movie and its merchandising an oddity. One wonders what the special features about the making of "The Good Dinosaur" will look like and if any will feature Jack.
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