December 17, 2015

Thanksgiving is all about family, and what better way is there to celebrate family than to see one of the best family films of the year - THE GOOD DINOSAUR. A rare treat to have two Pixar films released in the same year ("Inside Out" being the other in 2015), THE GOOD DINOSAUR makes its mark on your heart thanks to themes that ring true for every generation of families, parents and children, punctuated by a story filled with adventure, friendship and love and complemented by the beauteous landscape and lighting of the Wyoming, Idaho and the Snake River regions of the United States as inspired by the paintings of landscape artist and Pixar cinematographer Sharon Calahan, whose use of color and light serves as the visual core of the film.

Directed by Pete Sohn and written by Meg LeFauve, THE GOOD DINOSAUR is the story of a boy and his dog. . .only in reverse. . . with the boy now the dinosaur and the dog now the little boy. And a more adorable pair of unlikely friends, I dare you to find. But then Sohn and LeFauve add in an all important "what if" factor; WHAT IF the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago missed? And WHAT IF the dinosaurs survived and continued to walk the Earth and took on all those anthropomorphic characteristics we so love to see in animation? And WHAT IF they developed a remarkable agrarian world where they plowed fields, planted crops, harvested corn and lived in a charming little extremely high roofed one story next to a lazy winding lazy river in Wyoming? And WHAT IF humans were the ones who didn't speak, lived alone in the wild and were "uncivilized"? Well, that's just what we have with THE GOOD DINOSAUR.

Meet Arlo. Arlo is an Apatosaurus. He lives with his Momma and Poppa, brother Buck and sister Libby. Arlo is the youngest in the family (and somewhat the runt of the egg litter) and never quite seems to measure up to his siblings. Unfortunately Buck and Libby make it sport to taunt and tease Arlo, giving him a huge case of insecurity and hopelessness. But Poppa sees something special in Arlo, and constantly encourages him to be brave, and to do something big that will help him "earn his mark" in the family and the world.

Determined to make Poppa proud, Arlo tries his hardest to overcome his fears and his inabilities, but that determination costs him the one thing that he does have in his corner - Poppa. Caught in a horrific thunderstorm, Poppa is swept away by the torrential currents of the swollen, storm fueled river. Arlo, too, is caught in the rapid currents, pushed far away downstream from his home in the valley below Clawtooth Mountain. But Arlo somehow survives the storm. Battered and beaten by Nature's fury, Arlo washes up by the side of a far away from home all alone and lost.

Not knowing where he is or what to do or where to go, Arlo's curiosity is sparked when he sees a young boy (looking like a cross between a Neanderthal Man and early Cro-Magnon) who has all the traits a young puppy has for us today.

With no common language, and a lot of mistrust and trepidation, the journey of Arlo and Spot begins as they find common ground communicating with rudimentary stick figures and, of course, food! As Spot runs around on all fours, grunting and growling and showing Arlo how to survive in the wild, we see a friendship blossom and Arlo start to gain the confidence Poppa so wanted him to find. In one of the most poignant moments of the film, the two are captured under the stars in a quiet reflective moment of loss that speaks directly to our hearts.

Using the river as their guide, the two wend their way back to Clawtooth Mountain, encountering one delightful creature after another, not to mention a few not so delightful creatures, giving the animators, and their imaginations, freedom to play, delivering wonderful characters like The Pet Collector - an old Styracosaurus with a multiplicity of horns on which other unusual creatures are perched. Adding to the amusement of The Pet Collector is his deadpan dry voicing as done by none other than Pete Sohn himself. Pink cobras with legs, mini-hippo sized flying insects, chubby cheeked prairie dogs (hilarious) all populate the landscape. But then there are some not so delightful creatures that although visually stimulating and colorful and creative in design, are less than helpful to Arlo and Spot; a purple-hued pterodactyl named Thunderclap and his "gang" for one who offer help under the guise of having Spot and Arlo as their dinner. Gulp!

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But what would a movie with dinosaurs be without our friends the T-Rex and boy what a trio of T-Rexes have we got here! Bison ranchers, the Rexes' herd has been rustled by some unsavory Raptors and father Butch, and his two children, Ramsey and Nash, are galloping the plains trying to find them. Unfortunately, they've been unsuccessful even finding any tracks. Fortunately, though, Spot is an expert tracker. Harkening to the great westerns of John Ford, Sohn and company steep us in the very spirit of the American Western, especially during a nighttime campfire scene with Butch telling war stories about his adventures "in the good old days." And let me just say that having Sam Elliott, one of the cinema icons of the American West ,voicing Butch is enough to make you want to leap through the screen and grab a seat by the fire.

With Butch, Ramsey and Nash helping Arlo and Spot find that last turn that will point them towards Clawtooth Mountain, it looks like home is just around the corner. But what happens when Mother Nature rears her ugly head, Thunderclap returns and Spot is captured for their dinner! Can Arlo "earn his mark"?

One of the keys to any animation film is the voice casting and with THE GOOD DINOSAUR, perfection is the watchword of the day starting with Raymond Ochoa as Arlo. Effervescent yet timid at times and often with a little tremble in his voice trying to build up the courage to even speak, Ochoa endears Arlo to you with pure emotion. Doing plenty of research on the Apatosaurus, Ochoa learned enough about the species to get a handle on the tricky aspects of his voice. Noting that an Apatosaurus has a very very long neck, Ochoa envisioned that while speaking, invisibly "stretching" his voice up his neck. According to him, "[B]eing a Pixar movie you kind of do have to be able to research enough work to make it look like and sound like a dinosaur and [make it] as kid-friendly for kids to be able to listen to and be able to say, 'Okay. I'm not scared of that voice!' My voice was really high at the time so no one would be scared of that voice!. . .What was challenging was the fact that - I'm a very open person. I'm very outgoing. So to have a dinosaur and talk like a dinosaur that's very not outgoing - he's very scared, he's shy, he's not like how I am - that's when real acting had to come out because that's not me. I had to bring out my old self because I was like that at one point, so I had to reach in really deep into my old self. "

Veteran actors like Jeffrey Wright and Sam Elliott are also onboard lending their deep baritones for authoritative and languid touches as Poppa and Butch, respectively. For Wright, he relied on director Pete Sohn to get him into dinosaur mode. "[I]t was all living in his imagination. It was living in his head. . .just multiple levels of detail for every character and the background. He knew where Poppa had gone to college, agriculture technical I think in Colorado [laughing]." For Elliott, "The first thing I saw was the words on the page. You see the scenes. You don't see the script. You just see the scenes that you're involved with and a rendering. There was an 8x10 rendering of what this character looked like. But when you got into the studio with Pete. . .you meet this guy who is so enthusiastic and so specific in his vision and he has this incredible ability to draw that vision out of the performers." According to animator Kevin O'Hara, Butch was designed with Sam Elliott in mind - long before he had even been cast.

As sibling T-Rexes Ramsey and Nash, Anna Paquin and AJ Buckley bring a fun-loving sibling rivalry to the mix as do Maleah Nipay-Padilla and Ryan Teeple with their take on Libby and Buck. And before you even ask, yes, the Pixar good luck charm John Ratzenberger, is back, this time voicing Raptor Rustler Earl.

While Spot doesn't speak words, sounds are a language all their own and Jack Bright evokes heartfelt emotion and tears with his enchanting performance as Spot.

Written by Meg LeFauve and under Pete Sohn's directorial guidance, THE GOOD DINOSAUR soars both visually and with story and the overall emotional delivery. When reflecting on the animated feature film, and particularly that of Pixar, Jeffrey Wright notes, "It's really become seriously well considered storytelling; the themes of this one which are so universal and fairly obvious. . .parenthood and family and love and responsibility and nurturing. All of these things are so resonant." As comes as no surprise, some "strange fruit" makes its way into the film serving as a double entendre to many adults in the audience. But even that won't lose it's hilarity on the kids. And LeFauve never misses a beat with those thematic elements and the touches of humorous beats. Interesting is that the primary obstacle for Arlo and Spot is Mother Nature herself, delivering the most striking imagery and technical challenges. New technology brings volumetric clouds to the proceedings while geologic realism is captured thanks to the USGS and cinematographer Sharon Calahan's intimate knowledge of the topography, flora, fauna and lighting of the region.

The beauty that Calahan gives this film - and which is carried through by all departments - is guided by her eye and her heart. The whole look, the root of this film, its genesis and beyond, is Sharon's imagery, her paintings. THE GOOD DINOSAUR would not have the breathtaking majesty that it holds without her. Something which immediately jumped out at me on screening the film is how light dances and sparkles on water while creating such a sense of realism that one has to do a double take just to make sure what we are seeing is animation.

The subtlety of the color threads in THE GOOD DINOSAUR serve as a lovely connective tissue. Spot's eyes are the color of Arlo's green skin while Arlo's eyes are the color of Spot's more golden skin tone. Each scene of the film you find "signature notes" that make the scene distinguishable yet cohesive and anchored to every other scene. Much of that effect is done through color. As described by Calahan, It's fun when you've got characters that have strong bits of color like that because you want to showcase them and show them off in a nice way, and balance them with each other. Then maybe tone down the world around it enough to help those kind of pop and come through. The character colors were a lot of fun on this to play with. A lot of it was based on reality. Some of it's pretty fanciful. And how to get that to fit well with the more natural palette of the world. So it was kind of deliberate that the characters weren't a purely natural palette because it makes it a little easier for them to feel like little jewels or special things in the scene."

Surprisingly, the score of THE GOOD DINOSAUR by Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna is big, and I mean big, but with a sensitivity and playfulness that is disarming and charming. Craig Berkey works with the Dannas to incorporate all the sounds of nature into the score itself resulting in a dynamic auditory bandwidth that embraces nature and emotion.

As is well known, and as production designer Harley Jessup echos, "Jon Lasseter's marching orders for the art department is to always create a believable world and that means being authentic; not necessarily realistic always, but where you feel the danger, you feel like that character really exists in that world and that if you kept going it would be infinite."

THE GOOD DINOSAUR more than meets Lasseter's objectives a hundred-fold. Filled with a visual and emotional magic and majesty that touches the senses and the heart, THE GOOD DINOSAUR is DINO-RRIFIC!

Directed by Pete Sohn

Written by Me LeFauve

Voice cast: Raymond Ochoa, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, AJ Buckley, Steve Zahn, John Ratzenberger


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