A Review of The Good Dinosaur by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-I
Reel Rating, Four Reels
Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) hatches as a tiny, premature Apatosaurus from an enormous egg, a potent symbol of his ineptitude in the face of a dangerous world. He is afraid of everything, even the chickens he has to feed on his family’s farm. Humans too are like this, overwhelmed by the cataclysmic forces of nature that don’t care about us one bit. One can never get rid of the evil in the world; it must be faced.
Arlo’s family lives in the middle of a vast wildness several million years after the K-T event never happened harvesting corn for the coming winter. His Pop impresses on young Arlo and his siblings the importance of “making their mark” on the world by accomplishing something great. To help Arlo overcome his fears and become a man, Pop gives him the task of catching the animal that has been eating their stored grain. This “critter” turns out to be a primitive Homo Sapien who Arlo sets free after seeing him almost strangled in a trap, failing at the task. Things get even worse after the evitable Disney tragedy leading to Arlo being swept downriver from his home. He begins to trace his way back after befriending the critter he previously blamed for all his trouble. This Odessian journey will resolve whether Arlo will make his mark or live in fear forever.
The Good Dinosaur’s narrative structure is based on the Western genre harkening back to Disney coming of age classics like Old Yeller. There’s homsteaders, cattle rustlers, people who “got grit,” campfire tales, a Sam Elliot voice performance, and even the crazy hermit who lives in the woods. The relationship between Arlo and Spot mirrors the traditional archetype of the settler out of place in the West and Native American who teaches him to learn from nature and be noble. One of the best qualities of the Western is the reality of danger in a pre-industrial world. Dinosaurs and humans show up only occasionally in this vast and untamed continent beautifully animated by two expert cinematographers. The possibility of death is always present with venomous snakes, flash floods, and those who prey of others. Arlo befriends a family of T-Rex’s who joyfully tell background stories of their many scares. It is the father T-Rex who gives Arlo his best lesson. “Aren’t you scared,” Arlo asks. “Of course I’m scared,” he grunts. “You’d be crazy not to be. Life isn’t about being not scared but conquering your fears.” This is the true state of the world that is easily hid behind technology and modern thinking but ever present beneath the surface. It is not a reason to hide but live courageously.
Survival in a Western depends on family. Arlo is desperate to get back because he knows his family will not live the winter without him. Arlo learns how to love from them, a love also seen in the T-Rex family. There are two sets of villains who operate on an opposite model based on power and greed. Arlo is angry at Spot at first because his release led to a breakup of Arlo’s family. This changes when Arlo and Spot realize that both their families have suffered. They share their pain with a beautiful Jurassic version of Panikhida, the Byzantine prayer for the dead. By the end, both will see their families restored.
A great deal of talk is given about fear, family, and the wild, but not morality. Oddly, the title word “good” is never spoken. What does it mean to be “good” in the face of so much evil? Pop tells Arlo he must “take care” of the critter, meaning kill it. As the film progress, to “take care” of Spot takes on a different meaning. Arlo’s mercy was not a bad deed. Quite the opposite, he finally faces his fear when Spot is put in mortal danger. Good means not allowing adversity or suffering to prevent one from doing the right thing.
The Good Dinosaur is not as sophisticated or complex as its Pixar predecessors; it will not make a ton of money or win any awards. Yet in many ways, it represents the perfect Disney film: using the imagination to create a heartwarming story of overcoming loss to grow as a person, the central theme of all Walt’s life. In the 1960s, one reviewer criticized Disney’s films as “corny” compared to the edgier fare Hollywood began making at the dawn of the counterculture. “What’s wrong with corn? I like corn!” he barked back. Dinosaur is corny, and that is a good thing.