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film review

A scene from The Good DinosaurDisneyPixar

It has been two decades since Pixar's Toy Story proved the viability of feature-length computer-animated films. Yet the modest tool kit from which the studio draws for its biannual blockbusters has remained boringly consistent: Anthropomorphize a thing that wasn't anthropomorphic, hew close to archetypical mythic plotting that suggests a quick skimming of Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and tug on those heartstrings with the heaviest hand possible.

The stuff by Disney-Pixar, household names in big-budget animated cinema, is beginning to strike me as pretty hollow and calculating, devoid of interesting ideas or any sort of emotional heft.

"But John!" you'll balk. "Didn't you cry in Up when the old man's wife croaks and whatnot, you monster?" Sure, I did. In the same way that I may cry during Michael Haneke's Amour, or at the ending of Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark when (spoiler alert, for a 15-year-old movie) Björk is hung by the neck while singing, or when I get nailed in the unprotected undercarriage with a wicked-fast wrist shot in ball hockey.

These things are all painful and sad, sure. But the emotions they elicit are reactionary. They move us because we're being skillfully manipulated into being moved, and not because we're coming to any emotional revelation or catharsis of our own accord. In this regard, The Good Dinosaur is par for the course: more manipulative, maudlin trash from the Disney-Pixar content farm.

The film begins from a simple "what if?" premise: What if the asteroid that is believed to have caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event those many millions of years ago skipped the Earth entirely? Or, in short: What if dinosaurs weren't extinct?

Well, apparently they'd be practising agrarian agriculture and animal husbandry, living peacefully on family farms. Which suggests that they've also developed the concept of private property, which means that they've also developed neoclassical economics and hold fast to the tenet that private ownership is an inalienable right, inherent in nature itself. Pretty impressive for animals with brains the size of a large walnut, I guess.

In this alternative history where dinosaurs still roam the Earth, a young, awkward, knob-kneed Apatosaurus named Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) is separated from his family after a storm and sets off to find his way back. Like a giant reptile riff on The Incredible Journey, the film follows Arlo and his pint-sized Neanderthal buddy, Spot (Jack Bright), as they trek across the prehistoric North American wilds, traversing riverbanks, mountains, fallen forests and plains inhabited by galloping herds of giant longhorn cattle. In one (way too short) sequence that approaches inventiveness, Arlo and Spot eat putrid fruit and end up entering a psychedelic, hallucinatory trance.

As rendered by Pixar's computer processors and server banks, the digital landscapes are meant to be breathtakingly beautiful, but they tend to come across more like very expensive screensavers or immersive desktop wallpapers. The idea of being at all awed by a computerized, counterfeit image of the white sun breaking over a snow-capped mountaintop is a superlative example of what writer Jean Baudrillard called the "naturalistic simulacra": the cheery re-creation of nature, in God's image. (That The Good Dinosaur unfolds before the ascendency of mankind makes it a truly prelapsarian utopia; a picture of the Earth as somehow pure and unsullied.)

Such cheery, bogus imagery is perfectly of-a-piece with the cheery, bogus sentiment that stands as the Disney-Pixar house style. Yes, it's ostensibly moving to see a character's loving parent die (just as it was way back in Bambi), just as it's touching to watch tearful farewells as new friends part ways or when families reunite. It's paint-by-numbers emotional plying – the sort of thing that's insulting to the young children at whom it's ostensibly aimed, and should be frankly embarrassing to the adult audiences typically won over by Disney-Pixar's hackneyed, rehashed dreck.

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