The Good Dinosaur: Parent Review of the New Disney Pixar Film
The latest Disney-Pixar flick comes roaring into theaters this week with astoundingly rendered background art; themes of family, friendship, and overcoming fear, and starring roles for those kid-favorite critters, dinosaurs. Though largely aimed at a younger crowd, The Good Dinosaur is rated PG, and some themes and moments may be a little too intense for more sensitive viewers. Read on to find out if this film is appropriate for your family (and why it's worth seeing at Hollywood's El Capitan for folks in LA this holiday season).
The Good Dinosaur imagines an alternate history in which no asteroid struck Earth 65 million years ago. Instead of dying out, the dinosaurs continue to evolve, developing language, social structures, and agricultural skills. Humans come along, but this time they’re not the smartest guys on the planet. It’s hard to recognize ourselves in these preverbal, dog-like creatures, though their human ingenuity does lurk beneath the surface. In this world, dinosaurs are the “people” and humans are the beasts.
Our hero is Arlo, a young, undersized Apatosaurus. He is determined to prove himself, but his fears keep him from succeeding. He panics when he catches a human child stealing the family’s grain and lets the creature escape. Arlo and his dad go off in pursuit of the child, but get caught in a violent storm. Important spoiler alert: in a scene highly reminiscent of the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King, Arlo’s father dies in a terrifying, turbulent flood, using his last strength to get Arlo to safety.
Arlo, grieving over the loss of his father, uncharacteristically strikes out at the child when it returns. Arlo gets swept away by river rapids and ends up lost far from home. He is ill-equipped to survive on his own, unlike the crafty human child. After some initial distrust, Arlo develops a cautious relationship with the child, whom he calls Spot. Together they embark on the journey to get Arlo back to his family.
There’s a simple innocence to Arlo’s interactions with the nonverbal Spot. But on their journey home, they run across other dino species: rougher, cruder animals who bring a different tone to the movie. There’s a bizarrely paranoid Triceratops who seems to have a few horns loose. He wears a menagerie of creatures he has collected for his protection, and now he has his eye on Spot. This marks the beginning of Arlo’s turn from fearful to protector, as his size and dino-hood leave him better able to defend the human child.
More menacing still are the “spiritually enlightened” gang of pterodactyls, who initially seem goofy and harmless, but quickly reveal themselves to be psychotic scavengers. Arlo comes into his own, overcoming fear and finding his strength in protecting Spot. They face one last showdown, though, with the pterodactyls. Arlo is swept away by the river and nearly dies (during which he hallucinates his dead father coming back to him).
In case you had any doubt, Arlo is able to rally his strength and save Spot. But before they reach Arlo's home, they come upon a human family and must decide if Spot stays with his friend, or those of his own kind.
I caught a “dang”, an “aw shoot!” and a cut off “bullsh—” .
Spot and Arlo consume some tainted berries, resulting in some pretty out there psychedelic hallucinations. (Kids may not realize that the bloated heads and multiple eyes they see are drug-induced delusions and not really happening.)
Both Spot and Arlo deal with the loss of a parent.
Spot pees behind a rock (a scene the younger kids in the audience found highly amusing).
Scariness and Violence
Predator dinosaurs want to eat Spot. The T-Rex dad describes being attacked by a crocodile and drowning it “in my own blood.” Perilous storms and rushing waters are rendered in powerfully photorealistic detail.
The Good Dinosaur is a sweet, fun movie, with a lot of laughs and some impressively rendered scenery. Though younger kids may be drawn to the fun dinosaurs, the numerous scenes of significant peril and menace may be too intense for them.
The short before the movie is Sanjay’s Super Team, which is inspired by the animator’s own childhood experience. Young Sanjay is more interested in his superhero toys than his father’s practice of Hindu meditation. He imagines the Hindu gods as superheroes, fighting off a bad guy with some fairly intense action scenes—which some of the younger kids in the crowd found very unsettling.
El Capitan Extras
LA parents can treat their families and holiday visitors to a screening of The Good Dinosaur at Hollywood's El Capitan Theater. From the live organ performance to the energizing pre-show to the bonus materials throughout the theater, a show at the El Cap is always worth the trip.
It’s been 20 years since the release of the first Pixar film, an anniversary that’s celebrated in the current El Capitans pre-show. Fan favorites including Mike and Sully, Sadness and Joy, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible, Buzz and Woody, and even Ratatouille dance across the stage in several musical numbers. The characters reminded me of the incredible body of work produced by this animation studio. For additional warm fuzzies, fans can join Joy for a character breakfast before the 10am screening on select day.
In case you’re worried your kids might mistake this alternate history for fact, the El Capitan has an impressive fossil display on its lower level, curated by the Natural History Museum. Kids can step in a dino footprint, touch a fossil jaw, and view other displays that educate kids on dinosaur stranger-than-fiction facts. (During Thanksgiving weekend and on a few other select days, educators from the museum are on hand to provide additional enlightenment, though the exhibit is open throughout the run and is easy to navigate alone.)
The Good Dinosaur opens nationwide on November 25 and screens at Hollywood's El Capitan Theater from November 24 - December 13, 2015.
Check out our other parent reviews of family films.