There’s a quote from [[[The Tale of Genji]]] that has stuck with me since I read it more than a decade ago (and I swear this is going to be a review of The Good Dinosaur so stick with me a moment here) in which they describe a painting Genji made for a painting contest thusly: “this, done at undisturbed leisure by a genius at the art, was beyond anything.” It’s become a kind of shorthand used by me and a couple of my friends who took the class with me when we describe something particularly good we’ll describe the creator as “a master at leisure” but there might be a second way to interpret the quote. It might not just be that a phenomenal talent with unlimited time will make the greatest art, it could also be that an exceptional artist freed from the turmoil of their normal routine could make something not just good but quieter, more subtle. That’s what I think The Good Dinosaur is, a work freed from the turmoil of modern filmmaking that focuses on these sublime emotional moments and nails every last one of them.
It was a long road to the theaters for The Good Dinosaur and it missed its original release date by over a year to go through what was, reportedly, a major rewrite and an almost complete recasting. After all that, the story we get here isn’t terribly complex or original. The first act feels like an agrarian rewrite of The Lion King and the film ends terribly abruptly like a student film that ran out of stock. In between the movie is good but not terribly ambitious; it seems like a terrible waste to give us a world where dinosaurs never died and developed agriculture and society and then only show us the tiniest slices of that society. We see a single farm of brontosaurs (or whatever long necked herbivores they are), a family of tyrannosaur cattle ranchers, their raptor rustler antagonists, and a strange pterodactyl death cult. That’s all fascinating and frequently well executed but it left me wanting much more.
The plot of The Good Dinosaur is quite basic and there probably aren’t many sequences that will stick with me the same way Buzz Lightyear flying or Marlin and Dory going through the jellyfish did but the character work is rock solid and the movie packs a real emotional punch. I might be a little oversensitive to father/son stuff but the relationship between Arlo and his father, Henry, just killed me. Jeffery Wright does such nuanced work as a father struggling with feelings of frustration and disappointment but also profound overpowering love for his son. When the movie decides to linger on emotional moments with Arlo and Spot it’s also very effective, surprising because Spot doesn’t talk and is less like a human and more like a dog but something in his animation or voice acting or some other aspect of his “performance” makes it work. I’m not too proud to admit that I’ve cried in Pixar movies before (or even to admit that I was tearing up at the end of The Croods) but I was surprised at how frequently devastating The Good Dinosaur could be. Somewhat less surprising is what a treasure Sam Elliott is as a voice actor and how his thick drawling voice lends such a satisfying quality to a very important monologue.
I’m a little concerned my affection for The Good Dinosaur is some kind of Pixar elitism, and if this were the latest effort from Sony or Dreamworks I would be going on and on about how boring this movie was. I hope that’s not true, I hope I’m not that biased, but that’s also the cachet you get for making good movies for decades and never once making me sit through a Madagascar film. This feels not like a boring failure but as the work of a master at leisure, content to make something simple but haunting and beautiful. I love the spectacle and the completeness of a Wall-E, or an Up, or a Toy Story and that’s ok, they don’t all need to be that but they should all feel this real.