One of the reasons that PIXAR films are so well-crafted is that they are planned over many years, and self-evidently, the painstaking process of animation may invite more attention than live action movies. The visual magnificence - in wide splendor and meticulous detail alike - resonates with the audience’s desire for wonder. I never met a PIXAR film that didn’t at least make me smile. Beyond the way they look, the crafting of PIXAR’s stories is often so careful and wise that it results in work that is nothing short of iconic. Films like Toy Story 3, Ratatouille, Inside Out, and Wall-E constitute some of the pillars of a new canon of family entertainment: movies that elevate the heart and mind (and contribute to the movements for inclusion across lines of diversity, ecological healing, and taking joy in simplicity) while delighting even the most tired audience.
So criticizing PIXAR is a bit like saying you don’t like ice cream; not only is it not a popular position to take, it also easily results in self-doubt on the part of the critic. How can I not like ice cream? I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that the studio’s newest film The Good Dinosaur, while beautiful to look it, with a lovely score by Mychael and Jeff Danna, and totally convincing lead voice performance by Raymond Ochoa, is, like some ice cream, bad for your health. A lovely premise - the asteroid that caused the extinction of our large reptile friends actually missed, and a few million years later, humans are sharing the planet with tyrannosaurs, stegosaurs and, in the central character, an apatosaurus. Our hero Arlo is separated from his family, along with a human boy he calls Spot, and they have to find their way home. Challenges ensue. Both landscape and character look stunning, and there are some fun skits - especially when Sam Elliott shows up as a patriarchal T-Rex who also happens to be a cattle rancher with a cowboy drawl. But the story frame is superficial, and the moral beats troubling.
It’s a hero’s journey on the same lines as the Joseph Campbell outline, but The Good Dinosaur script seems to have been treated as a work of industrial necessity. The nuanced spectacle of Wall-E wandering alone in a destroyed world, is absent: there’s no sense of danger on Arlo’s trek. The psychological complexity of Inside Out’s exploration of core emotions, and the process of emotional maturing is replaced by the utterly simplistic notion of facing fear by throwing something at a bad guy (also a disappointing - and surprising - appeal to the notion that enacting violence against others is a necessary step on the path to becoming a full person). And strangest and saddest of all, the brilliant, life-affirming, embrace of diverse community in Toy Story is overturned in favor of defining community by literally drawing a circle around ‘people like us’. It’s a strange film, because it’s so lovely to look at, and its ambient sounds to listen to; at points it even reminded of The Lion King (without the implied racism of that film, so that’s a good thing; but it doesn’t have the awe either) and - I’m not kidding - Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (there is pathos here, and it is earned; but the superficiality of the rest doesn’t match it).
And yet, there is something really special happening with The Good Dinosaur. The short that precedes it, Sanjay’s Super Team, in which a Hindu father and son bond over shared rituals of religion and play, is an extraordinary work. The highest principles of art are here: beautiful form and content meet, we learn something about the world, and see ourselves anew. The Good Dinosaur is a mis-step; Sanjay’s Super Team is the kind of film that helps heal the world.