Editor’s Note: This month, resident contributor Marie B takes a look at two of the biggest animated films on release during the year-end holiday season…
If I could leave you with one piece of advice about this film, it would be this: watch it on the big screen. Whether you’re seeing this with your kids or seeing it with adults, whether you’re a casual movie-goer or an avid Pixar fan, trust me, you’ll want to see this on the big screen. You’ll want to be surrounded by the sights and sounds of this film. But mostly, you’ll want to be surrounded by the kids for whom this movie was made.
“The Good Dinosaur” is the (current) embodiment of how far we have come in Computer Animation. We’ve seen chimps act like humans (“Planet of the Apes”), a tiger share a boat with a boy (“Life of Pi”) and most recently, a whale stare down its hunter (“In The Heart Of The Sea”). These great, breath-taking visuals are all par for the course now. But animation has always stood on slightly different ground. There have been forays into “realistic” animation (“Beowulf”), but in most cases, an animated film will always look like an animated film.
That is, until “The Good Dinosaur” came along.
Set in a world where dinosaurs never went extinct but instead formed their own civilizations, and where humans never move up the food chain but instead are considered pests, it follows the story of Arlo, a young, cowardly dinosaur separated from his family. To find his way home, Arlo builds an unlikely friendship with Spot, a Neanderthal boy, whose friendship and help gives Arlo the courage to overcome his fears and become the dinosaur he was meant to be.
The marvel of the movie doesn’t come from the character design of the different dinosaurs or how they depicted Neanderthal man. The beauty is in the landscape. If someone hadn’t told me that they were all computed animated, I could have sworn that Pixar chose to inter-cut this movie with real footage of open land, blue sky, of water, of foliage, of nature. It was spectacular. There is no other word to describe it.
It is slightly unfortunate then, that the story of the film never quite lives up to the visuals. While there is nothing offensively wrong with the narrative, it just felt, at best, mediocre. Here, Pixar’s signature strength of storytelling combined insightful human truth is very much missing. What we have is a serviceable story, enough to fill an hour-and-a-half of screen time, and enough to entertain the kids. Despite my slight disappointment with the film, I was more than happy that the children watching it were so engrossed. Little boys leaning forward in their seats, little girls asking their dad whispered questions about what was happening, tiny voices breaking out in laughter at the gags. They were what made the film a success, not necessarily Pixar.
A few years ago, I had the joy of catching live, on stage, the musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” Based on the beloved comic strip by Charles M. Schultz, the musical was a live-action compilation of some of the comic’s most beloved 4-panel story lines. In my blog piece about that show I had said, “it followed no strict storyline, but narrates the world of the Peanuts gang much in the same way the comic does: short snippets of witty truth that resonates both in your heart and in your head. It was a wonderful escape into a world that was simplified yet wise.”
Now, 3 years later, referring to an entirely different show, in a totally different art form, those words still ring true. “The Peanuts Movie”, which brings to animated life the world’s most famous children: Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, their circle of friends and the world’s most famous beagle, Snoopy, does little to deviate from what we have come to know, love and expect of the Peanuts gang. The movie’s plot follows the story of Charlie Brown’s love for the Little Red Haired girl (a recurring point in the comic), interspersed with Snoopy’s adventures as the Flying Ace up against his arch-nemesis The Red Baron (again, a comic staple). Sprinkled generously between these 2 stories are other key Peanuts elements: Lucy’s 5-cent psychiatry booth, the Kite-eating tree, Schroeder’s love for Beethoven, Linus’ security blanket and adults who talk via muffled trombone.
This loyalty to the source material is testimony to the love the film makers have for the characters. In a time where so many re-boots and re-imaginings are happening to so many of our childhood favourites (“Hansel & Gretel Witchhunters”, anyone?), it’s refreshing to see the Peanuts treated with such respect. Watching this film, I’m certain that long-time fans are breathing a sigh of relief. Their beloved friends are safe.
But staying true to what is familiar, expected and loved, is also probably the films greatest downfall. In its strict adherence, it left itself very little room to move the franchise forward. As a result, what we see on now is essentially the same as what we have seen before, starting from the very first “A Charlie Brown Christmas” animated TV special in 1965. 50 years later, it is still the same old beats, the same old punchlines, and the same old dilemmas. It’s comforting and endearing, but not terribly exciting.
For those with only a passing familiarity with Peanuts or who are only mildly attached to the characters, there will be little to sustain their interest in the film. While that may be a shame, in the end I suppose that’s ok. Because to those for whom this movie matters most, we can still say, “You’re a good man, Charlie Brown.”