The Good Dinosaur – World & Story

Thoughts On: The Good Dinosaur (2015)

The asteroid that took out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago misses Earth.

Whilst the similarities between The Good Dinosaur and The Lion King can get to be quite absurd, I think this is an excellent film. In the story department, The Good Dinosaur hits all the archetypal beats of a story about a reluctant adventurer rising to the challenges of the cruel and bitter world to return home and become a ‘king’, a ‘good king’. This story is told with a precise understanding of itself, and so is, in many senses, a revised version of The Lion King (which, itself, is a re-telling of Hamlet). And whilst, in the realm of character, The Good Dinosaur starts off on shaky ground, characterisation strengthens as the narrative progresses. If we were to be honest, however, story and character are not too important in this film – at least, story and character are not as important as the aesthetics are.

The Good Dinosaur, whilst it is an impossibly beautiful and detailed work of animation, is a slightly worrying film to me. Pixar have always been the computer animation company, but, as we have discussed before, there is a ‘Pixar standard’ of story and character. Thus, what has come to be expected of Pixar by now is that the animation builds a unique world which can be populated by highly engaging characters and brought to life by an affecting story. This is certainly found with films such as Monsters Inc, Ratatouille, Toy Story – and The Good Dinosaur to a great extent. There is, however, a strong push within The Good Dinosaur for immaculate animated photorealism, and it is captured by the pristine landscapes and shrubbery of this film – which the direction is entirely focused on showcasing, and for good reason – but not the character design.

What is then worrying about this novel showcase of new technological heights is that character and story are taking a back seat. This isn’t so obvious within The Good Dinosaur as the characters and story are very strong. But, it doesn’t feel that much work has gone into the fundamentals this story, however. Rather, The Lion King was boiled down to its basic beats so that storyboardists could figure out as many opportunities as time and resources would allow for the animators to show off. From this point, this archetypal story of anarchy (the pterosaurs and nature) fighting order (Arlo with his developing higher ideals) and good fighting evil is told very well, and with expressive pure cinematic language that does not rely on narration or much exposition. (Also, much like Cars, this takes inspiration from classical Westerns). However, what is the point of telling this kind of story, however well, in a world where an asteroid didn’t hit Earth 65 million years ago?

This is the conflict I come to when watching this movie; it looks awe-inspiring good, and the story is truly effective despite the lack of originality, however, the story feels detached from its world. In Monsters Inc or Ratatouille, for example, we see the worlds constructed in a manner that implies story. In Monsters Inc, children are exploited for their screams and are seen as a hazardous danger. So, why not have some of the top scarers be confronted by a toxic child, realise otherwise, and change the world? In Ratatouille, rats are perceived to be dirty rodents that shouldn’t be anywhere near a professional, respectable restaurant. So, why not follow the story of a rat who believes that anyone can cook? What we see in these films is the world creating a thesis, an idea of how things are supposed to be, and characters being antithetical to this. When the world and character collide, we get a new synthesis, which is recounted over a story. We find this paradigm in many ingenious films (outside of animation, Yorgos Lanthimos is a master of constructing these worlds), and the consequence of this formula is often a highly immersive and expressive film that reflects much about individuals and wider society.

The most simple version of the “character vs. the world” narratives are the basic fish-out-of-water stories. Disney have capitalised on this endlessly with films such as Snow White, Dumbo, Bambi, Lady And The Tramp, The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast… the list goes on and on. What all of these films have in common is a main character who feels alienated by their society and/or wants to be leave it (to be free). These stories aren’t very different from the likes of Monsters Inc, Ratatouille, or, to pick up on other great “character vs. the world” stories, Lilo & Stitch, Peter Pan, Pinocchio and The Incredibles. However, these films do separate themselves from the likes of Beauty And The Beast and The Little Mermaid as the way in which the characters interact with their worlds is, in itself, and to varying degrees, profound and unique. We can understand this by explaining two films in the simplest sentence we can and then reflecting upon the story that exists beyond them. Our first example would be The Little Mermaid: A young mermaid wishes she could marry a human Prince. Secondly, Pinocchio: A puppet is turned into a real boy.

With both of these films, there is an implied conflict between character and world, a thesis (the world with its rules) and an antithesis (the character who does not fit in it). However, though Ariel, the mermaid, doesn’t necessarily fit in on land, nor at sea (and this is almost a pun of the “fish-out-of-water” film), the tension of this film doesn’t really capitalise on the existence of these two worlds and their inherent differences. Instead, The Little Mermaid is pretty much another teen movie; it is not stupid and I think it has some clever commentary on being a teenager that we have explored, but, this story wasn’t in dire need of the mermaid-human conflict; two kids from two different families, cultures or towns would do – and this is a story that has been told in a thousand different ways (Romeo and Juliet would be the archetype). If we look to Pinocchio, however, the profundity of this story is deeply embedded in the conflict between a real boy and a wooden puppet; this citation itself implies much complexity. So, the world, and its rules, around Pinocchio are the source of what makes this film great. To again contrast, with The Little Mermaid, the world building isn’t too integral.

What we’re beginning to pick up on here is how world building can be used as a powerful narrative device. However, I am not suggesting that films can only be good if they use world building in such a way. For example, The Lion King, just like Beauty And The Beast, does not utilise world building as a narrative device to the extent that Peter Pan or Pinocchio do. Nonetheless, all four of these films are excellent, and so differ in their approach to story to only create various kinds of films, not necessarily better or worse films. We bring up this paradigm of storytelling, however, to discuss the conflict within The Good Dinosaur.

Within this film, and as we have discussed, aesthetics are the focus; world building is the focus. However, the story, whilst it is very well told, is a somewhat cheap one for its numerous parallels with other Disney movies. This tension between story, character and world leave the formula of this narrative shaky in my view; the story doesn’t match the world and the characters do not either. This is something that is demonstrated aesthetically and narratively.

When I look at this image, I see something tantamount to this…

Arlo is a cartoon in a real world, and, thanks to his design, I don’t think this works at all. Within many Pixar movies there is a particular tension between realism and impressionism, and The Good Dinosaur is the most expressive example of this. If you then cut the above image of The Good Dinosaur in half to just show the mountains, I would have to take a moment to question if it was a CG image. The anatomically-kinda-correct human, Spot, because he is close enough to reality to not seem to be of a different style of animation, is very acceptable in this setting…

But, the wildly cartoonish Arlo just doesn’t fit in. Whilst I understand that the dinosaurs would have evolved over millions of years, the final product of Arlo…

… isn’t at all convincing. What Pixar do very well here is make a dinosaur out of the skinny, goofy, slightly annoying, cries-a-bit-too-much (and looks ugly whilst doing it), but is very likeable (to his parents and some adults), kid that gets picked on in school. However, add a hyper-realistic setting to this design…

… and there is an undeniable (at least in my view) discordance conjured. So, in short, these are horrible looking sauropods. After all, just compare them, for example, to the theropods and ornithopods in Dinosaur from 2000…

… or even to the dinosaurs Fantasia…

In Dinosaur, Disney of course go for full realism, and though the CGI has dated, this film looks far better than The Good Dinosaur in terms of the harmony of images. And if we look to Fantasia, the dinosaurs are a little clumsy looking, but they nonetheless merge with their settings and look pretty awesome thanks to the use of colour and atmosphere. What we’re then ultimately left with is a question of, why did these awesome dinosaurs…

… have to devolve?

What this implies about the wider paradigm of this movie’s faults is that things simply don’t fit. So, just like some of the characters do not physically fit into their world, the world doesn’t suite this story very well. As we have asked, what is the point of re-telling The Lion King in a world where the dinosaurs weren’t wiped out by an asteroid? Shouldn’t the humans be the focus of this world, this thesis, by proxy of them being antithetical to it? If not, and I don’t think there’s a need to make humans the focus, I think if this movie jumped a few million more years ahead and maintained a focus on the dinosaurs by depicting the growing conflict with the developing humans, we’d have a film that, like Monsters Inc, has a justifiably fantastical world that immediately implies a profound, meaningful synthesis of character, story and world design. And as an extension of the “character vs. world” plot-lines already present The Good Dinosaur, there could have then been an element of a human learning from the dinosaurs who, because they are more evolved, have developed societies and ideals. Who knows, maybe they’ll make a Good Dinosaur 2 about this. However, for the fact that there is such a focus on a clever concept that is not used for anything other than gorgeous and alien landscape shots is plainly disappointing.

To bring things towards a conclusion, I still think that The Good Dinosaur is a pretty excellent movie, maybe not Pixar’s best, but nonetheless brilliant. What worries me about Pixar’s approach to style and story is that the bettering computer animation technology is becoming much more of a focus for the company, reducing more of their films to mere spectacles and attractions of intensifying degrees. Added to this there is the whole topic of sequels, which, as you would have noticed, we haven’t discussed once in the Disney series. So, all I suppose we can hope for is that Pixar don’t dig themselves into a rut with their up and coming original, non-sequel titles by further losing sight of story, character and world design.

With this point made, I’ll turn things over to you. What are your thoughts on The Good Dinosaur? Is there a disharmony between the story and the style of this film? How much does this impact the quality of the film in your eyes?

 

 

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