This week, I saw two very different movies; however, if you look at them a bit more closely, it becomes clear these two films have a fairly similar theme: Sons trying to live up to the example and expectations of their fathers. “The Good Dinosaur” and “Creed” approach their subjects from wildly different perspectives with one being aimed at children while the other is purely for adults. That said, each features a main character that is trying to be his best because of the loss (or lack) of a father. Each succeeds because the filmmakers avoid falling into the trap of depending on sentimentality to sell their tales and use great characters and compelling stories to make us cheer and weep.
The Good Dinosaur
The asteroid, which 65 million years ago put the nail in their coffin, missed and the most intelligent form of life on Earth is the dinosaur. Born on his family’s farm, Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ocha) is the runt of the litter. His sister and brother are both bigger and neither seems to fear anything while Arlo is afraid of his own shadow. His poppa (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) and momma (voiced by Frances McDormand) love Arlo and do what they can to help him past his fear. Something is getting in their corn silo and eating up the crops they will depend on in the winter for food. In an effort to give him confidence, poppa puts Arlo in charge of capturing and killing the pest. The trap is sprung and Arlo sees it is a feral human boy. Attempting to escape, the boy gets tangled up in the trap lines and is being choked to death. Arlo releases the lines and the boy runs away. Poppa makes Arlo join him in tracking the boy through the woods and along the river. A storm builds up causing a flash flood and poppa is swept away and dies. Arlo feels responsible for his father’s death as well as angry at the boy. When he sees the boy in the silo again, Arlo chases him down by the river where the pair falls in. Arlo hits his head on a rock and is knocked unconscious. Waking up far from home and without the familiar landmarks he’s seen all his life, Arlo is scared and doesn’t know what to do. Unprepared for life in the wild, Arlo is sometimes helped by the boy. He protects him from predators and brings him food. Despite his feelings of anger, Arlo begins to like and depend on the boy he eventually names Spot (voiced by Jack Bright). Together, Arlo and Spot try to find their way back to Arlo’s family farm. Along the way, they encounter a tyrannosaurus family of ranchers, velociraptor cattle rustlers and a group of murderous pterodactyls.
The story of “The Good Dinosaur” is a familiar one with a protagonist in a situation for which he is wholly unprepared and teamed with a partner he initially dislikes that then begins to learn about survival and himself while learning to love his former enemy. “Cars,” “Finding Nemo,” “Inside Out” and “Toy Story” among others have similar plots. While those films may be aimed at a slightly older audience, “The Good Dinosaur” manages to adapt the story for younger eyes and ears and keep their parents entertained as well.
Visually, “The Good Dinosaur” is a wonder to behold. There are times the wilderness scenery looks like something from a travelogue. Rivers flow, trees bend in the wind, grasses sway, dust clouds billow all in ways that look like they were filmed, not drawn in a computer. While the dinosaurs and humans are rather stylized and somewhat simplistic in their appearance, the way they move and how they interact with their environment feels and looks real. Pixar constantly works on their software to make CGI look and react in line with the laws of nature. It is a feast for the eyes.
“The Good Dinosaur” isn’t as emotionally complex as “Inside Out” but it still delivers a powerful message of love and acceptance. Arlo doubts himself and that he can ever measure up to his father; but his father never puts him down or belittles him and works to instill a sense of purpose and pride in his son. Arlo is a bit of an outcast within his own family. His brother and sister are both bigger and strong than Arlo. While he tries, Arlo is timid and afraid he isn’t up to the task. It is a powerful message for young viewers to see a character that isn’t able to succeed at everything he tries and still receives the support of his family. It doesn’t take much searching to find stories of real children that aren’t so lucky.
The characters of Arlo and Spot spend a great deal of time on screen together without other characters. Spot only speaks in grunts and howls leaving the majority of the voice work to Raymond Ochoa. The teenager is terrific as the young Arlo, running through a full range of emotions. The movie lives or dies based on his performance and he is more than up to the task. Another standout in the cast is Sam Elliott as Butch, the leader of the T-Rex family. Elliott has an instantly recognizable voice and seemed to have been coached into turning up the drawl and the growl. It could have come off like parody but considering he is voicing a T-Rex it actually works. As poppa, Jeffrey Wright delivers a warm and earnest performance that at first feels almost too soft and cuddly. Later, when Arlo lets Spot out of the trap, he flares up in anger and makes his dinosaur all too human. While it is brief, Wright’s performance is effective.
“The Good Dinosaur” is rated PG for action, thematic elements and peril. Arlo has confrontations with various characters along his journey home. Some involve mild violence and the threat of injury of death. The loss of a parent and the desire to take revenge are parts of the story. There is no foul language.
While it may not be a masterpiece like “Inside Out” or “Toy Story,” “The Good Dinosaur” is still a moving adventure of self-discovery. It has characters with which it is easy to identify and a message that even the youngest of viewers should have no trouble grasping. And, as with nearly all Pixar films, have a tissue handy for the last 10 minutes or so as you will likely need it.
“The Good Dinosaur” gets five stars.
Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), Don or Donny to his friends, has had a troubled upbringing. His father was nowhere to be found and his mother died when he was young. Bounced from one foster home to another, Donny is an angry kid who gets in fights. He winds up in a juvenile detention facility when he is visited by Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad). She invites Donny to live with her because he is the son of her late husband, championship boxer Apollo Creed, the product of an affair he had. Now an adult, Donny works at a securities firm but heads to Tijuana on the weekends to compete in bar fights. He has won 15 in a row and approaches a trainer in his home town of Los Angeles to take him on but he refuses. Donny quits his job and moves to Philadelphia to find Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and convince him to be his trainer. At first reluctant, Rocky decides to take on the persistent young man. Donny also begins a relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), an aspiring singer who lives in his building. After winning his first professional fight, word of his parentage is leaked. Meanwhile, the light heavyweight champ “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) is looking at a jail sentence for a gun charge in his native UK. Looking for one final payday before he goes to prison for possibly seven years, Conlan’s trainer Tommy Holiday (Graham McTavish) contacts Rocky about pairing Donny and the champ in a fight on the condition that Donny changes his last name to Creed. Let the training montage commence.
I’ll admit I didn’t want to like “Creed.” It seemed like an unnecessary rehash of a well-worn franchise; however, the story and performances beat down my objections like a Golden Gloves boxer taking on a world champion pro. “Creed” is a knockout.
Michael B. Jordan delivers a performance that should eliminate the bad memory of the “Fantastic Four” reboot from everyone’s minds. Jordan is electric as Adonis Creed. He captures a troubled young man that is trying to make the father he never knew proud. It is a fruitless pursuit that is made moving and dynamic by Jordan’s nuanced and riveting performance. There’s far more going on in “Creed” than just a boxing movie and Jordan is the primary reason why. Donny is driven, stubborn, volatile, passionate, determined and still manages to be caring and empathetic. His relationship with Bianca, which could have been played as a distraction and in many lesser movies it would have, merely makes Donny a more interesting character.
While Donny is the focus of the story, the character that will draw many people to the movie is the aging champ, Rocky Balboa. Sylvester Stallone gives a subtle and restrained performance. Often acting as a father to young Creed, Rocky treats Donny with tough love and respect. It is the kind of relationship many sons would love to have with their fathers. It is playful at times as well as instructional. Stallone is obviously passing the torch to the next generation.
If the film has a weakness, it is the predictability of the story. It follows the familiar path of countless movies before with the hero facing numerous challenges, becoming disillusioned with his path and separated from his friends and mentors, then finding his way back. It is a tried and true story arc that could have lessened the impact of the film; however, “Creed” succeeds in spite of its familiar tale. The performances and the soundtrack combine to drag the audience along kicking and screaming. It is a rousing, feel-good film that dares you not to be moved by Donny’s struggle.
“Creed” is rated PG-13 for violence, some sensuality and language. Naturally, there are numerous fights both in the ring and out. There is some blood from various cuts and pools of bloody water. There is a brief sex scene that has no nudity. Foul language is scattered but the film does have on “F-Bomb.”
“Creed” is essentially a remake of the original “Rocky.” While it throws in a few more story elements, if you’ve seen the original you’ve basically seen “Creed.” Please don’t let that stop you as “Creed” is a crowd-pleasing tale of hard work and dogged determination performed by a gifted main cast. It might even make you consider running up the stairs at your local museum and pumping your fists in the air when you reach the top.
“Creed” gets five stars.
This week, only one new film opens in wide release but there are others playing in my town that could have potential Oscar chances. I’ll see and review at least one of these.
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