Ah, 2015. The Year of the Pixar Double Feature. The year we all sighed deeply with relief when Inside Out denied our darkest fears of a Pixar permanent creative slump, even as we anxiously shuddered when staring down its dim pipeline of pending sequels. As if that weren’t enough drama, Inside Out, which crowds of critics heralded as a capital-C-Classic, has been immediately followed by The Good Dinosaur, a film with enough production drama and postponed release dates to make us all fear a failure. Will the circle of Pixar masterpieces be unbroken? Well, relax. Between Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur, I think we can comfortably trust Pixar to continue producing both flat out masterpieces and first class stories for the foreseeable future.
To view The Good Dinosaur’s trailer is to get a grasp of the movie’s elements: a well executed “what if” (dinosaurs not being wiped out but evolving ahead of humans) providing the setting for a dinosaur-meets-boy adventure story as the two characters journey though the wilderness, all told against stunning photorealistic landscape that will surly inspire the highpoint of every review (including mine).
If you thought the trailer’s odd mixture of photorealistic scenery and cartoonish dinosaurs was odd, so did I. But it works. The simple strokes of the CGI pens allow for the characters themselves to shine. The animators invite us to share their delight in these figures through joyous visual gags, as well as the endless fun of a classic western story and setting (complete with a western soundtrack) turned all things dinosaur. A homestead straight out of Unforgiven, a strange spiritualist learning triceratops, and a trio of longhorn herding T-rex cowboys provide some these delightful genre callbacks (as well as some of the straight-up funniest moments I’ve seen at the theatre this year).
And these characterizations only serve to heighten the power of the visuals. As someone who grew up shouldered by the Rocky Mountains, next to towns where Unforgiven and Brokeback Mountain were shot, I recognized the landscape captured so well; the deep blues and greens of mountain river waters, the dusty greys of its sandy silt, and the glorious oranges of the virgin birch forest. I also recognized the dangerous menace of the quickly approaching mountain storm, as well as the haunting vastness of the wilderness. Whenever I travel into the mountains I return refreshed and in awe—of something, or Someone, who is far greater than me.
Something untamed. Such is true in this movie too.
In The Good Dinosaur, this wildness (call it creation or call it nature) is the main character. Everyone and everything else is just the backdrop. I left as refreshed by this scenery as I do when I visit the real mountains, or when I watch films like The Thin Red Line, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, or the 1978 animation of Watership Down. These movies are alive to wonder and aware of terror and The Good Dinosaur joins their ranks. (All the more reason to catch it on the massive screens, powerful sound system, and 3D technology of our modern cineplex.)
The story is simple, and is content to be that way, serving as the bare backdrop to this beauty. A touch more complexity might have made it more satisfying. The villains seemed underdeveloped compared to the other magnificent side characters and unlike many other Pixar films, there is no third act that throws everything into jeopardy. This is just a simple coming of age adventure story, our protagonist getting from Point A to Point B while growing up in the process.
But what is not lacking is the emotional depth we’ve come to expect from a Pixar film. I was pleasantly surprised by how sensitively the father of the main character was portrayed. The emotional core of the film is contained within two largely wordless scenes that pack heartrending emotion all the more genuine for their simplicity. With our deep-rooted fears of the foreigner at our doors dug up yet again by current crises, this film acknowledges such differences yet reveals the source of deepest empathy.
Inside Out has found its perfect counterpart in The Good Dinosaur. One takes place in a dizzyingly complicated internal world, the other amongst the fast expanse of the wilderness. One is a vivid candyland of primary colours, the other finds its lush colours in the natural palette. Inside Out gave us a complex plot knocking on every emotion, while The Good Dinosaur is a simple story with a joyous heart. What a year indeed, Pixar.