In a slightly surprising move, Pixar decided to release two of its major features in one year. Inside Out was a smashing box office hit as well as a critical one. The Good Dinosaur, a story of an alternate world in which dinosaurs never went extinct, is doing quite well too, although with a slightly more lukewarm critical reception. The animation itself is gorgeous, as expected, but what it seems to lack is much of the heart that made some of its best features so memorable. In any case, it is still a solid recommendation for younger and older audience members.
Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna are experts when it comes to specialist instrumentation and ethnic elements. For many years, their talents were used by filmmakers in order to conjure ancient Eastern tones in modern context. And many of those scores were indeed excellent, culminating with the Academy Award win for Mychael’s Life of Pi. The Good Dinosaur is both a continuation of their work,although taking the concept in quite an unlikely stylistic direction.
It’s obvious right from the outset that The Good Dinosaur won’t be simply trying to evoke the prehistoric world in any cliched way and that is not a bad thing. But nothing could prepare the listener for what’s to come. ‘Homestead’ introduces folksy fiddle and a surprisingly Americana tone. The noble brass and string performances push it even further, almost bringing Aaron Copland’s works to mind. The following two track (‘Hello Arlo’ and ‘Chores’) continue on with this idea, this time with the aid of piano solo and banjo.
Indeed many themes in The Good Dinosaur have a quality of American folk songs and they are also usually quite brief (as the family theme first heard in ‘Make Your Mark’). It might seem like a strange and completely inappropriate choice for a story like this at first. But then, for such a strange story concept, it almost make sense to “turn it a bit sideways” (in composer’s own words) and mix things up. And, surely enough, Danna brothers also used a wide variety of instruments from Turkey, Greece, pre-Colombian America and Nordic countries to balance out the Western genre instruments. Very interesting is the wide array of percussion used throughout the score (‘Critter Problem’, ‘Fireflies’, ‘Shark Problem’ and ‘Rescue’).
The score has also its more tender and magical side. ‘Fireflies’ marks the change in tone from the folk sound. The mysterious strings and harp establish an eerie tone, not completely unlike the more mystical portions of Life of Pi. This material is later reprised and developed in ‘Orphans’ and ‘Arlo’s Vision’. The occasional combination of various cultural influences in one piece results with some really intriguing effects. The low woodwinds combined with percussive effects and ethnic wind instruments in ‘Pet Collector’ and ‘Swimming Lessons’ are particularly lovely.
Danna brothers never go overboard with massive orchestral onslaught, the way many composers probably would, but instead make careful orchestrational choices that sell the idea of terror. Brief moments like ‘Storm Chasers’, ‘The Storm’ and ‘You’re Me and More’ make a great greater use of the western ensemble in well structured short outbursts of power. ‘Bloodhound’ and ‘Fight Them Rustlers’ offers us a slightly lighter take on action music, with some unexpected sax solos. In some more active segments, we can find some really cool brass writing recalling the harsher works of Elliot Goldenthal.
For all its creativity, The Good Dinosaur feels often too scattered around and that has mostly to do with really brief track running times. Only occasionally do we get to hear something more sustained. But even in longer tracks like ‘Run with the Herd’, Danna brothers jump from one (good) idea to another (good) idea in a matter of seconds, without ever establishing much of an identity or dramatic throughline. The climactic ‘Goodbye Spot’ brings the overall sound closer to composers’ older scores in its touching delicate emotional quality and, as such, serves as a strong resolution. The final two cues bring the score full circle and we’re back to the more folky tone (‘Homecoming’) and Copland’s Americana (‘Arlo Makes His Mark’).
As a musical experiment, The Good Dinosaur is really intriguing. Jeff and Mychael Danna can really craft beautiful moments by combining cultural traditions of seemingly clashing musical cultures. The themes are cute, orchestrations expertly executed. It all sounds absolutely lovely. It just… doesn’t make for a very striking or coherent album. As a standalone 61-minute programme, often feels a bit aimless. Probably it’s best to be enjoyed and appreciated in proper film context.
The Good Dinosaur is out now from Walt Disney Records