It's been a few weeks since I watched The Good Dinosaur and I've been wanting to write about it ever since. I love this movie, in part because of the extremely satisfying ways in which this movie loves other movies. In some ways, I hold The Good Dinosaur up alongside WALL-E, which was another movie that loved movies. And while WALL-E was a beautifully executed love letter to silent films and early Hollywood, The Good Dinosaur is just as beautifully executed a love letter to the tent-poles of Disney hand-drawn animation.
The emphasis in The Good Dinosaur's case is on the word beautiful. I'll say more about why this is important later, but for the moment I'll just enthuse, because hoooly shit does this movie look incredible. I've seen criticisms of the film that point out the discordance between the realism of the environments and the cartoonish character designs of Arlo and Spot, but for my money this is a feature and not a bug. Not only is there something satisfying about discordance in art - the conflict between the styles creates tension in the viewer - but in this case I also think it's appropriate. There is no real antagonist in the movie, but Arlo struggles throughout with the environment; so it makes sense that the environment would oppose the character stylistically.
But the environments. Oh, man. I wish I had pushed myself to see this when it was in theaters. The environments are virtually photo-realistic - it's even possible they fall into... should we call it the too-canny valley? Real life wishes it looked so photo-realistic. There's an early shot of water lapping against rocks on the shore that is bewilderingly well-rendered.
And the water effects are actually a good jumping off point for the idea of this movie as something of a grand tribute. Anybody who's seen The Lion King and The Good Dinosaur drew the connection between Poppa's death and Mufasa's death, the stampeding river taking the place of the stampeding herd. I won't linger on this moment, because it does announce itself, except to say how horrifically well-executed it is. The impact of the water is visceral, and the timing of the cut leaves no doubt that Poppa could never have survived.
I'd wager, as well, that anybody looking out for Lion King references caught the echoes of the hyenas in both the pterosaur and the raptor groups and, heartbreakingly, the remix of Mufasa's Ghost when Arlo confronts Poppa's ghost. This is a wonderful scene, as Arlo tries and fails to walk in his father's footsteps before moving forward in his own direction. The scene also implies that had Arlo followed the ghost of his father, he would have died. More than that, the vines around Arlo's neck echo the rope trap Spot was caught in earlier - in both cases, it is Arlo's decision not to follow his father that saves a life. Which is frankly a whole level of deep I'm not sure this movie gets enough credit for.
But The Lion King Tributes are the easy ones here, and I want to move forward by talking about a scene that, frankly, I didn't know what to do with when I first saw it. There is an exceedingly strange scene in which Arlo and Spot get high as shit on some hallucinogenic, rotting fruit. A friend on Twitter mentioned how this scene carried some not so subtle shades of Dumbo (who also had a bewildering round of intoxicated hallucinations) and a lot of things started to fall into place.
At this point it's worth coming back to talk about the art of The Good Dinosaur. The artists behind the movie had to literally create a new method for rendering environments to get the level of detail they achieved while at the same time filming open environments. Outside of establishing shots, the vast majority of 3D animated scenes in most movies are shot in enclosed sets, to keep the amount of data that needs to be rendered in the animation reasonable. Not so here. Not even remotely so. The Good Dinosaur achieved a sustained level of both detail and depth that has literally never been seen in computer animation of any actual length.
It took six years for Disney to complete production on Sleeping Beauty. The background art in Sleeping Beauty is famously painstaking and intricate, and the movie marks a level of pure artistic quality that the studio never again attempted without a CG assist. I can't help thinking of the amount of detailed work and artistic innovation that went into the creation of The Good Dinosaur without also thinking of Sleeping Beauty, and with that connection made, I can't watch the scene when Arlo is tangled in a knot of thorned vines (which already calls back so evocatively to The Lion King) without also thinking of Maleficent's thorned vines in Sleeping Beauty. I can hardly imagine that the similarity is coincidental.
All this without yet looking at the film's story. The Good Dinosaur is fairly textbook Bildungsroman, but if Arlo's arc isn't innovative it is earned. His loyalty to Spot is hard won (Spot digs him out from under a rockpile, feeds him, AND saves him from a snake attack before Arlo warms up to the pet, and it still takes a stunning turn of visual storytelling as the characters bond over the deaths of their parents before the loyalty is finally won). And if the Bildungsroman - the character arc - itself is something we're used to seeing, the plot structure is not very common in mainstream movies these days. The "upside down checkmark" and Hero's Journey are much more common at the moment than what we see.
The Good Dinosaur is, for the most part, episodic. Once on his journey, Arlo gets stuck under the rocks, encounters the snake, runs across the Pet Collector, escapes the pterosaurs, meets the tyrannosaurs, and finally returns home. No one episode is necessarily more dramatic or difficult than any other, except perhaps the last, and the only thing linking most of them is the environment itself: the landmarks of the river and the mountain literally guiding Arlo through the otherwise disconnected encounters.
The unsurprising character arc and episodic storytelling are among the most common criticisms of the movie I've seen in its generally lukewarm reviews, but to me, again, these are features rather than bugs. A lot has been made of the well-reported story problems the movie had before Peter Sohn was promoted to director, and of the dramatic changes he made to get the story to work, and I think it doesn't give him much credit for his efforts or his talents, because the story he wrestled the previously troubled project into is tightly plotted and effectively paced. Because Arlo's arc is so thoroughly earned, it doesn't need to be complicated. And if the plot is episodic, that's just as thoroughly in the Disney animated tradition as any of the callbacks to Lion King, Dumbo, and Sleeping Beauty.
I'm thinking now about Alice in Wonderland (another Disney movie with some interesting references to intoxicants and hallucinogenics, by the way), though there are many worse Disney cartoons with episodic plots. Structurally speaking, the way Arlo bounces from one adventure to the next is not so different from the way Alice bounces from encounter to bewildering encounter, the Pet Collector not so different from the Mad Hatter, the wildly grinning disembodied head of Spot not so different from the Cheshire cat, and so on. I don't think all of these parallels are intentional, but I do feel that when they are familiar they are familiar because they come from the same tradition of animation that The Good Dinosaur so clearly loves so much.
It is also, on a more basic level, just a good-ass movie, with astonishing visuals and consistently difficult, satisfying emotional moments, from the horrifying loss of Poppa to the heartbreaking moment when Momma mistakes Arlo's sillhouette for his father (and how about the visual power that moment: the shadow identified as Poppa until the moment Arlo steps out of it). Beautiful. Yes. That's the word for the whole thing.