The Good Dinosaur

Posted on November 24, 2015 at 5:43 pm

Copyright Disney 2015
Copyright Disney 2015

“The Good Dinosaur” is the good movie. Not the great movie. Not the especially memorable movie. Just the perfectly nice and pleasant movie, much stronger in visual splendor than in storyline.

Delayed for 18 months as Disney replaced the original director and realigned the story, the seams are palpable. And too much of it is much too familiar: a mismatched pair has to find their way home (see “Finding Nemo,” “Toy Story,” etc. etc.), a young animal is devastated by witnessing the death of his father through a natural disaster (see “The Lion King” — the staging is very similar), a boy with no family is cared for and preyed upon in the wilderness by animals (“The Jungle Book”), and it takes place a long, long time ago (see “Ice Age,” “The Land Before Time,” and “The Croods”).

But it is beautiful to look at, and the story is very sweet, a traditional “boy and his dog,” except here the “boy” is the dinosaur and the human is more like a pet. In the world of this film, the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs bypassed earth, and so millions of years after the real dinos died off, they are not only still here, but they are thriving. Humans are just beginning to stand erect and have not yet developed language or tamed fire (but have somehow invented very handy leaf-clothes that are woven together so well they always cover the private bits). The dinosaurs can speak and they have learned how to farm, using their snouts to plow the field and building a silo to store grains for the winter. A loving herbivore dino couple (Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand) lovingly watch their three eggs hatch as the story begins. The biggest egg produces the smallest dino baby. They name him Arlo (Raymond Ochoa).

While his brother and sister are confident and capable, Arlo is fearful and anxious. His chore is feeding the chickens and they terrify him. His parents explain that each of the children will have a chance to literally make their mark — to add their paw print to the silo to show that they have made a contribution to the family. “You’ve got to earn your mark by doing something big for something bigger than yourself,” the father dinosaur explains.

Arlo’s siblings make their marks. But Arlo cannot seem to get beyond his fears. His father gives him a chance to set a trap for the animal that has been stealing their grain. But when the creature — a little human boy — is caught, Arlo lets him go. The father dinosaur tries to teach Arlo how to handle fear. But, leading Arlo to chase after the boy, a thunderstorm swells the river and Arlo’s father only has time to save his son before he is swept away.

Arlo gets separated from his family, and the only one who can help him is the young human, who crawls on all fours and pants like a puppy. Arlo names him Spot, and together they meet a variety challenges, many involving friendly characters or predators. Highlights include a very funny Styracosaurus whose antler protuberances are occupied by birds and animals (see “Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose.”) But it is very funny to hear him introduce each of them, explaining about one of the birds, “He protects me from having unrealistic goals.” A brief visit to a collection of gophers who get literally blown out of their holes is delightfully choreographed. Sam Elliott provides just the right gravelly bass voice as another dinosaur dad who is less scary than he looks (but even that is too reminiscent of the better shark scene in “Nemo”).

The patched-together quality is most telling in a quasi-dream sequence (see “Footsteps” plaques at your aunt’s house) and an ending that seems to undercut some of what we thought we learned about what makes a family. The visuals are gorgeous, especially the clouds, the landscape, and the play of water and light. But the story is only intermittently as engaging as the background images.

Be sure to get there in time to see the short film before the feature, a heartwarming autobiographical tale about a Hindu father at his morning prayers. As he pays tribute to his deities, his son is on the other side of the room, watching a television show about superheroes. The way they are brought together has more imagination, heart, and inspiration in its brief running time than “The Good Dinosaur” has as a full-length feature.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril, with some characters injured and killed (and eaten). There is a sad death of parent (who returns in a dream, which may be confusing or disturbing to young children), omnivorous dinosaurs with big teeth, etc., trippy fermented berries, and some potty humor.

Family discussion: How will you make your mark? Who in your family has a scar and what is the story behind it?

If you like this, try: “The Land Before Time,” “Finding Nemo,” and “Inside Out’

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Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Posted on August 4, 2010 at 6:00 am


“Middle school may be the dumbest idea ever,” says Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), and I think he speaks for all of us. If you ask most adults whether they would rather be audited by the IRS or go back through middle school again, they’d have a hard time making a choice. No one understands that better than Jeff Kinney, whose wildly popular series of Wimpy kid books are so true to the middle school experience — and so funny about it as well — that more than 11 million copies have been sold.

The reason that middle school is so agonizing is that it is the time when we first realize that we would really like to be cool at the same time we are struck with the horrifying realization that we have no idea how to get there. It is a time of agonizing self-examination, growing uncertainty about everything we thought we knew, diminishing willingness to rely on our parents, and the terrifying conviction that everyone else seems to have it figured out. It is the time of the great hormone divide, where boys who look like they are 10 share a classroom — and a locker room — with kids who look like they could be in college. It is a time when we rethink everything we thought we knew about who we are and what we want from our friends. So much suddenly seems GROSS and EMBARRASSING. Everything suddenly seems so disgusting we end up projecting all of those feelings onto some weird object like a piece of moldy cheese, which then assumes urban legendary status with the power to cooty-fy anyone who touches it. And in the middle of this we are also expected to live through algebra and PE.

Greg thinks he understands what it takes to succeed in middle school, despite the endless list of “don’ts” he gets from his older brother Rodrick (an enjoyably predatory Devon Bostick). “You’ll be dead or homeschooled by the end of the year,” he concludes. Greg is sure that his elementary school best friend Rowley (Robert Capron) is clueless — Rowley still says things like “You want to come over and play?” instead of “You want to hang out?” and does a dance number WITH HIS MOM at a school party. But this wouldn’t be a movie — and it wouldn’t be middle school — unless Greg had some important lessons to learn about coolness, friendship, and just how much he still needs to learn.

The movie captures the tone of the books, even including animated segments featuring the book’s stick figures. Gordon has an engaging screen presence that keeps us on his side. He and Capron seem like real kids, centering even the heightened situations and emotions by reminding us that in middle school, that’s how it really feels.

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