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PIXAR: The Home of the Road Movie


I saw Disney/PIXAR’s The Good Dinosaur earlier this week and it reaffirmed a problem that I’ve been having with PIXAR’s films for the past several years. PIXAR is now the home of the road movie. Avid followers of this blog will know that I am not a fan of the Road Movie. I find that they tend to be episodic and are often less than the sum of their parts. The reason for that is that Road Movies generally involve a long trip with a series of challenges along the way. Those challenges are usually unrelated to each other, are equally challenging to each other (no rising degree of difficulty to increase the level of drama as the story progresses) and  are quite often self-contained mini-stories within the broader narrative of what ever the hero’s main goal is or where she is trying to go.


The best example of this phenomenon is Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951). Taken individually, the scenes from that film are highly entertaining and work very well as shorts, but there is little that binds them together other than Alice’s desire to find the white rabbit and these fantastical characters in an equally fantastical world serving as obstacles. First Alice has to get by the door knob, then she has to deal with the Dodo before being blocked by Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb who tell her the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter. She then has to deal with the hookah smoking caterpillar before meeting the Cheshire Cat who tells her to go see the Mad Hatter. On and on it goes until she finds the Queen of Hearts who wants to chop off her head before the Cheshire Cat shows her that she’s just dreaming and merely needs to wake up. The point is this. You could take the order of those scenes and change them around to almost any order that you like, save for the last scene with the Queen of Hearts, and you’d still have the exact same story. I love the individual scenes because they’re all highly entertaining. I can’t watch the film in its entirety because it’s not a cohesive story. It’s a whole bunch of sub-stories that serve a higher but very thin narrative.


You’re now asking me, “What does that have to do with PIXAR?” Well, I’ll tell you. The same problems can be found in Finding Nemo, Up, Inside Out, and The Good Dinosaur. The first time I started thinking about any of this was the first time that I saw Finding Nemo when it first came out in the theater. I worked for Disney Feature Animation at the time (full disclosure: I currently work for DreamWorks Animation), and quite a few people opined to me that they felt it was the best feature that PIXAR had done to that point. My first thought at hearing that was to reply, “Then you either haven’t seen Toy Story 2, or you’ve just forgotten about it.” I somehow missed it on Finding Nemo, and couldn’t figure out why at first. I agreed that it was the most beautiful movie PIXAR had made to that point. The characters were engaging, and there were funny moments and heartfelt moments a-plenty. I remember thinking at the time that the great white shark Bruce was a terrific character and I would have liked it better if he had been a constant antagonist rather than just an early challenge in one scene. Then it hit me. There was no spine in Finding Nemo. Marlin had a series of challenges that he had to face in order to grow as a character and find his son, but there was nothing other than that to connect any of these challenges together.

Road Movies are a chain of events that link one after the other, and I prefer a story that is a spider web of interconnected ideas.

In fact, I have always felt that the B-story in Finding Nemo, of Nemo having to escape the fish tank before the Dentist’s deadly niece arrives is a much more intricate and interesting and entertaining story than Marlin trying to find him. Each scene builds on what previously happened and builds into what’s coming next in that portion of the story, which is much more dramatic and has a rising tension along with a ticking clock to add suspense. I would have liked the film a lot better had that been the A-story.

As heretic as it may be to say, Up and Inside Out had a lot of the same issues.

This leads me to The Good Dinosaur, which basically followed the same structure as Inside Out with the main character getting pulled away from his home and having to venture through a strange Special World in order to get home to his Ordinary World, which will no longer be the same now that he’s had these experiences. Arlo is a small, weak and cowardly dinosaur who wants to make his mark like the rest of his family of big, strong dinosaur farmers has done. After failing to kill a critter (or small human child that he later names Spot) that’s been stealing their corn, Arlo and his father set off after it to finish the job. However a storm comes, causing the river to swell, and Arlo’s father is swept away and killed. They need to get the corn harvested before the snow comes, and Arlo works hard to try and pick up the slack, but he falls into the river and is swept miles down stream. The first thing that Arlo sees when he comes to is the critter that he blames for his father’s death, but after a series of awkward encounters, the two form a bond and Arlo starts to follow the river home.


To this point the film has been merely boring. Once the journey starts, it becomes an episodic mess where Arlo and Spot go from being chased by pterodactyl-like dinosaurs to befriending T-Rex-like dinosaurs to dealing with no fewer than 3 storms. I actually want to take issue with the T-Rex scene in particular. Arlo’s character arc goes from cowardly and weak to brave and strong. He actually finds his strength and bravery in the sequences with the T-Rex’s and at that point we’re only half way through the film. The problem with this is that traditionally the second act ends with the hero’s character flaw causing him or her to lose everything. The problem is that by the end of the second act of The Good Dinosaur Arlo has already overcome his flaw, and the end of the second act and the entire third act feel contrived.


I understand that there were story issues and that the film was delayed by a year and that they had to rush to even get the film done in time to make its current release date. I’ve worked on films in similar situations, and they rarely turn out well. The Good Dinosaur suffered due to that situation. Not only are the second and third acts episodic, but they also suffer from sloppy story telling and inconsistencies. For example, Arlo is not only able to survive the same exact type of river swell that killed his father, but then he and Spot are inexplicably able to survive a spill over a nearby waterfall (that we’ve never seen, BTW, even though it’s in the same area as Arlo’s home), as well as being underwater for another one hundred yards down the river before coming to the surface. Then when Spot is not breathing, Arlo merely blows on his face, causing Spot to spit up water and start breathing again. Look, I’m all for taking creative license and the occasional cheat in order to connect story points or scenes that would otherwise be possible to connect. But in that sequence the film makers were treating us in the audience as though we were stupid. They painted themselves into a corner with a poorly structured, episodic road movie and proceeded to get out of it in as easy a way as possible. This is quite possibly my least favorite PIXAR film.

I would also like to say something about the art direction before I finish. The backgrounds and environments in this film looked amazing. They used USGS data to create hyper-realistic environments and they’re absolutely beautiful and stunning to look at. Unfortunately the characters are too cartoony for those environments, and there’s a disconnect there. It’s like that scene from an old episode of The Simpsons where Homer gets transported to a live-action world. When Homer is in The Simpsons’ world he looks normal. In our world he looks alien and like a cartoon. PIXAR put caricatured, and cartoony characters in this very realistic looking world, and the result was jarring and distracting. Perhaps a better story and more engaging characters would have helped, but the combination of all of that actually lessened the quality of the film.


One comment

  1. Bob Harper says:

    I agree with you that Good Dinosaur had issues and Finding Nemo isn’t the best Pixar movie (personally I vote for the Incredibles)

    I do disagree with your assessment of road movies in general. Hidden Fortress, Good Bad and the Ugly, Star Wars among others are fantastic films. It’s how one uses the genre and mechanisms that separate the great from the alright.

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