Thursday, June 15, 2017

Theory Thursday: "The Good Dinosaur" is Underrated

Scene from The Good Dinosaur
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Cars 3 is released in theaters this Friday.
Theory: The Good Dinosaur is underrated.

There is not much negative stuff to say about Pixar. Their line-up of releases feature some of the most innovative and exciting CG films of the modern era. With the release of their latest, Cars 3, it only feels right to dedicate a column to their expansive filmography. But what exactly can be said that is controversial? I for one am not too differing on the opinions of these movies. The good movies are good, and the bad ones are mediocre. It's almost unfair to pick on Cars just because its acknowledged second tier status has been explored to death. So with that in mind, I have to come to the real question: what do I disagree about with the public's perception of Pixar? Even the somewhat middling Finding Dory was okay. There has to be something that I don't agree with.

In fact, there is one thing that I have grown fascinated about, and that's the failure of The Good Dinosaur. The year 2015 was supposed to be a landmark moment for the studio, who was celebrating its 20th anniversary. What better way than to release two big movies, one in summer and one in fall? It's irrefutable that Inside Out is possibly the studio's best since Up (and probably one of their greatest, period), but what about The Good Dinosaur? As I reported at the time, it was a notorious flop for the studio and received some of the studio's least favorable reviews - at least outside of Cars 2. Suddenly this prehistoric story of a dinosaur befriending a caveman was a black mark on their reputation. It under-performed in ways that the studio hadn't since their early days. To say the least, it joined the ranks of A Bug's Life and Brave as those films people brushed off as mistakes from a perfect studio.

It's why I took awhile to get around to The Good Dinosaur. However, I found myself being moved by the film when I finally came to that moment. It wasn't Pixar's best of 2015, but it was an admirable work that blended prehistoric characters with western themes, creating a compelling mash-up of ideas. At the center was Arlo, who was a young dinosaur who didn't feel like he was capable of living up to his family's standards of being self-sufficient. He was clumsy and goofy-looking. It's when he goes on a journey that he discovers what he's truly made of, especially as he gets wrapped up in adventures with the human character Spot, who doesn't speak and acts predominantly like a dog. It's a decent set-up, and one that probably deserves more credit for being an effective Pixar movie geared at kids. This is an adventure movie first and foremost. Its balance of heart and peril are some of the studio's most striking works yet. 

I admit that there are elements that are pretty juvenile. Arlo is a bit of a whiner. His insecurity is childish to a fault. Even the choice to pit cartoonish dinosaurs in a beautiful, realistic landscape (especially in the water design) may confuse some people. Still, I found it as a way to show the disparity between the dinosaurs and their home, notably in Arlo's case. He doesn't look like he belongs, and spends the movie trying to. He may look like molded green clay, but it only helps him to look like an underdog overcoming a bigger struggle. He sees some wondrous sights, and it's some of Pixar's most creative animation. This is a movie light on plot and maybe gets too ridiculous and weird at points, but it still has an awe to it that works for a family movie. Even in the hands of Dreamworks, this would've been more slapstick and annoying. Instead, it has a balance that allows everything to resonate.

The most important thing about The Good Dinosaur is to not judge it as being as good as WALL-E, Ratatouille, or any of the "masterpieces." It will fail incredibly by those standards. However, if one judges simply as one of the more creative dinosaur movies, you'll find that there's plenty to get out of the experience. It builds to a great climax full of scary peril. However, it works within the themes of the movie, and effectively shows how Pixar can convey story through action. It may not be the most ambitious film, but it's more charming and silly than it gets credit for. I do love when Pixar experiments and releases unexpected movies. Inside Out theoretically didn't sound like it would work, but did beautifully. A movie about dinosaurs by way of western themes is a little too ambitious, but thankfully isn't enough of a mess to be bad. It frankly feels more assured in whatever its story should be than Pixar's other recent successes, notably Finding Dory.

Considering that 2017 is marking another year where Pixar releases two movies (Coco is set for a Fall release), it will be interesting to see if this formula will be changed. Will one of these two suffer the fate of The Good Dinosaur, or will it only continue to make the prehistoric adventure movie look more foolish? There's a lot of things to be curious about this year, though I hope one of them is noticing that Pixar may sometimes fail, but is rarely ever boring. Even at its worst, The Good Dinosaur is ambitious in making a fun family film with characters geared at little children. How tolerant you are of that will determine how much you like this movie. Even then, it's the magic of Pixar at play, and I hope in time this movie is recognized as being actually pretty good at just being fun. 

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