This was intended to be Tor.com’s first review written by a nearly-8-year-old.
Me (to Lana): Would you like to go to the cinema to see The Good Dinosaur?
Lana (excited): Ooh, yes! And I can tell Miss Mandziuk about it because we’re doing dinosaurs at school. And maybe we could get some popcorn and some chocolate and a drink?
Me: Yes, I’m sure we can do that. And when you get back I’m going to ask you some questions about the film.
Lana: What sort of questions?
Me: What you liked about it, what were the best bits, what were the worst bits…
Me: Because I’m going to put your answers on the internet for other people to read, to help them decide whether or not to see the film.
Lana: Ooh, ooh, and I’ll make my answers a bit of a mystery so they don’t know everything about it. Like a blurb on the back of a book.
[note: sometimes I’m so proud.]
Me: Great idea! And then…
Lana (interrupting): Can I have my own popcorn, instead of sharing? I don’t mind sharing, but you always eat it all straight away and I like to make it last all the way through.
And so we headed out, braving the cold English weather as we fought our way through wind and rain to the movie theater, a 2 minute walk away. And warning: here lie major spoilers.
We missed the trailers and unfortunately only caught the second half of the accompanying Pixar short (Sanjay’s Super Team—excellent), but we made it to the main event. There were only three others in the entire place. Perhaps everyone else had already read the reviews.
If you’ve seen the early trailers you’ll know the basic premise—the meteorite that hit Earth all those millions of years ago passes by, harmlessly, and the world’s dinosaurs are not wiped out in this alternate universe. Fast forward a couple of millions years, and the dinosaurs have evolved. They’re intelligent, they’ve developed farming techniques, and families matter. In fact, if there’s one major theme running through this movie, it’s that families are the most important thing—the family we’re born into, and the families we gather around us as we wander through life.
Arlo is the hero of the tale. One of three apatosaurus eggs to hatch at the same time (his sister Libby is clever and playful, his brother Buck is a bit of a dick), his parents love him unconditionally. He’s a timid creature, afraid of pretty much every other creature in the land (a distinct disadvantage in a family of farmers) and every loud noise. His father is positive, though, that one day he’ll make his mark on the world. His mother doesn’t seem quite so sure, but she remains hopeful, but nonjudgmental.
Arlo’s father is the epitome of fatherhood. He’s kind, he’s thoughtful, he’s patient, he’s loving, he’s understanding, he rarely loses his temper. He’s everything anyone would want in a parent. So, of course, it comes as a bit of a shock when—ten minutes into the movie—he’s killed in a horrific and devastating flash flood that left me wide-eyed, with my jaw open.
[cue muffled whimpers from the seat next to me]
Me: Are you ok, sweetie?
Lana: (chewing lip, nods)
Me: Are you sure?
Lana (whispering): I’ll be ok.
One dino down, and the family are struggling to cope with the demands of the farm, but Arlo is determined to make sure that they’re able to harvest all the crops before the winter sets in, so the family doesn’t starve to death.
Unfortunately, while chasing a strange creature (a proto-human child, evidently intended to be the cute sidekick) Arlo falls into the river, into the rapids, and gets pulled under.
Me: It’s ok, Lana. He’s going to be fine. This is his film, so we know he’s going to make it out of this.
Lana: O… O… O… Ok. (sniff)
The river currents are too strong; Arlo is helpless. His head thumps against a rock and he blacks out. Even Lana, who earned her 50 meter swimming badge 2 weeks ago, would struggle. Washed up ashore, and regaining consciousness with a sore head, Arlo realizes he’s lost.
Poor Arlo. His father dies (losing us the only fully rounded character in the movie) and then he loses his way, though he remembers his late father’s words—“If you can find the river you can find your way home”—and sets off on a long journey to find his home and his family, accompanied by his increasingly faithful (but savage) human pet, Spot.
So far, so Nemo. Except along the way he encounters predator after predator—some of whom want to eat Spot, some of whom want to eat Arlo. And pretty much all of them are terrifying. Case in point: the leader of a trio of flying pteranodon-like creatures tells Arlo that they’ll help him find his way home, but they smell Spot on him, and the intensity with which they try to catch and kill the boy is shocking.
[sniff, sniff, whimper, sob]
Me: You’re not enjoying this, are you? (I know, I know—I’m no Arlo’s Dad)
Lana: I don’t know.
Me: Shall we go home?
Me: I’m pretty sure that at the end of the film Arlo will find his way back to his family, and Spot will still be with him, but there will probably be some more scary bits along the way.
Lana: Let’s go home. (sniff)
A note about the animation. It’s stunning—or at least the scenery is. I found myself staring intently at fronds of grass and drops of water to try to determine if the animators had included actual filmed footage as part of the movie—it’s that good. The characters that inhabit the film are more basic; they’re cartoon dinosaurs in comparison, presumably to make the horrific parts of the story less horrific, but here’s the thing—kids don’t differentiate. Those dinosaurs were as real to my almost-8-year-old as anything Jurassic World could have cooked up; the quality of CGI doesn’t matter when you view the world through a child’s eyes.
And so it was with a heavy heart that I headed out to watch it again, hoping against hope that the movie would improve. It didn’t.
The Good Dinosaur is a sub-par Finding Nemo with terror in place of Nemo’s slapstick. The movie appears to have two messages: “Family is important” and “Keep away from the water! Oh, god, oh, god, the water is going to kill you! Arrrgh!”
It’s difficult to see who the movie is aimed at—it’s too intense for younger children, but the storyline isn’t compulsive enough for older kids or their parents. Coming from any other animation studio this would probably be regarded as a disappointment. Coming from Pixar (and hot on the heels of their best movie in years) it’s almost unforgivable.
Me: Would you want to see it when you’re a bit older?
Lana: I don’t think so. It’s too scary. I think it might be ok for an 11 or a 10 year old, but I don’t know.
I don’t know, either, Lana. I don’t know, either.
Lee Harris is the Senior Editor with Tor.com’s novella line.