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THE GOOD DINOSAUR

For once, you can praise a film for truth in advertising: the adjective in the title of “The Good Dinosaur,” the latest entry from the Pixar animation giant, is right on the money. The studio has made some exceptional movies in the past, but this isn’t one of them. It’s perfectly agreeable and, of course, technically masterful, but in narrative terms it’s pretty conventional, paling beside Pixar’s more imaginative efforts. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t still miles ahead of most of the competition, but to call a Pixar production just okay means that it’s essentially a disappointment.

The story is basically a prehistoric boy-and-his-dog tale, but with a twist: in this case the “boy” is a dinosaur, and the “dog” is a boy. (The dinosaur even calls him “Spot.”) It’s set on an alternate earth where the meteor that led to the extinction of dinos instead missed the planet by a hair, so the beasties survived and evolved into intelligent, home-making creatures. Meanwhile the human race is just starting its climb up the evolutionary ladder, and isn’t yet terribly advanced.

So of the two main characters on tap here, it’s the apatosaurus Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) who’s the more intellectually and socially developed. He lives with his parents (Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand) on the family’s corn farm, but is the shrimp of the litter, the constant butt of jokes from his bigger siblings Buck (Marcus Scribner) and Libby (Maleah Padilla). Poppa’s advice, as so often in such tales, is to overcome his fear—poor Arlo is even terrified of the family’s chickens—and make his mark by doing something important.

To help the little fellow, Poppa gives him the task of guarding the family’s food store against intruders, but when a feral human tyke (Jack Bright), jumping about on all fours, invades the larder, Arlo fails to deal with him, and when Poppa and Arlo take off after the urchin, disaster strikes, leaving the little dinosaur on his own in the wild. Luckily he and Spot make an uneasy truce and gradually become bosom companions—and protect one another—as they try to find their way back to the farm.

What follows is an episodic series of adventures that bring the duo into contact with a variety of helpful or dangerous critters. The most amusing, though unfortunately the briefest, is an encounter with a philosophical styracosaurus called Forrest Woodbush (voiced in deliciously deadpan style by director Peter Sohn) with a bunch of protectors arrayed on his horns. But a longer sequence in which Arlo and Spot join forces with a trio of T-Rexes to track down their herd of longhorns, which have become the target of rustler raptors, is buoyed by the contribution of growling Sam Elliott as Daddy Rex, whose campfire talk is a highlight, even if it—as well as the gruesome gastronomic practices of the chief villain, a nasty pterodactyl called Thunderclap (Steve Zahn, oozing menace)—might be a mite too unnerving for the littlest tots. They might also find strange a short interlude in which our heroes consume some rotting fruit and have a drug-induced trip, though another, in which Spot rips the head off a giant insect, will probably appeal to kids’ love of yucky stuff. (The customary potty humor, however, is relegated to a single sequence, and done in a fashion that’s quite discreet by today’s standards.) Needless to say, the journey ends happily, with Arlo finally showing not only his courage but a willingness to make sacrifices for Spot to have a real family, too.

This chain of rambunctious action is sporadically engaging, but it has to be said that neither Arlo nor Spot is among Pixar’s more memorable characters, and even Elliott’s Butch is more notable for the actor’s gravelly delivery than for the T-Rex’s personality. That roundup sequence does, however, help to define “The Good Dinosaur” as something of a cartoon western (a feeling enhanced by the score from Mychael and Jeff Danna), and the animators have responded with background art that is utterly gorgeous: an opening shot that looks like Monument Valley gives way to swirling fields of cornstalks and rivers running through huge, heavily forested gorges, and a dreamlike sequence in which Poppa uses his tail to raise a assemblage of fireflies in the nighttime sky has a hint of magic (though repeating the effect later on gilds the lily overmuch).

But a Pixar film in which what one most remembers is the landscape obviously has problems. “The Good Dinosaur” is burdened with a choppy, overly familiar story, obvious lessons, and characters that, with a few exceptions, come across as bland. Because of its technical finish it’s a pleasant enough way to spend ninety minutes, but not one of the Pixar classics we’ll still be remembering years down the road. Reports of a troubled genesis, including a change of directors, appear to have been accurate.

The picture is preceded in theatres by a short, “Sanjay’s Super Team,” a sort of love letter to artist Sanjay Patel’s father, in which a boy more interested in cartoon super heroes than Hindu meditation contrives a way to have his cake and eat it too. It’s a nice little fable for a time that celebrates diversity, and like “The Good Dinosaur” is marked by beautiful 3D animation.

CREED

After six movies in the “Rocky” series (including “Rocky Balboa”)—let alone the recent “Grudge Match,” which obviously played off them as well as “Raging Bull,” and even a Broadway musical based on the first picture—one might have thought that we’ve seen enough of Sylvester Stallone’s Philly pugilist, but “Creed” proves that there’s life in the old Italian Stallion yet. All the franchise needed was some new blood (not counting that spilled in the ring), and that’s provided by writer-director Ryan Coogler, whose “Fruitvale Station” was one of the best debut features in years. And he’s brought along the dynamic young star of that film Michael B. Jordan, who redeems his disappointing appearance as the Human Torch in the recent “Fantastic Four” debacle with a vibrant performance here.

Of course, Stallone is also on hand to provide another crowd-pleasing turn as Rocky. This time around, he doesn’t get into the ring again—at least not to face off against an opponent—but instead takes on the role of trainer to a young fighter, in effect assuming the role that Burgess Meredith’s Mickey played in the early movies. Stallone did the same in “Rocky V,” but this time the outcome is better: his charge is Adonis Johnson (Jordan), the illegitimate son of Rocky’s old opponent-partner Apollo Creed, who’s apparently inherited his father’s ability (presumably it’s all in the genes) and chosen to buck his stepmother’s (Phylicia Rashad) wishes that he take a lucrative financial services job. Instead he travels to Philly and asks Rocky’s help in training for a career in the ring.

Initially Rocky’s reluctant—he hasn’t been to the gym in years, preferring to spend his time at his restaurant, or visiting the graves of Adrian and Paulie. But eventually he relents, of course—there wouldn’t be a movie if he didn’t—and is training young Donnie, as Johnson prefers to be called, according to his old-school playbook, though now the young fighter runs to a hip-hop soundtrack accompanied by cyclists. Donnie also takes time out to begin a romance with his feisty downstairs neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a singer with progressive hearing disorder.

Donnie doesn’t want to play on his parentage, preferring to box under the Johnson name, but his win over the promising son of a gym owner spills the beans, and attracts an offer for a bout against the current light-heavyweight champ, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Anthony Bellew), a Brit who’s about to start a stint in prison and needs a quick, but hefty paycheck before he goes into the slammer. Rocky advises against the kid moving too fast, but Donnie decides to go for the gold. The training regimen is ramped up as a result, but it hits a roadblock when Rocky finds himself in a fight of a different sort, in which the tables are turned and Donnie becomes his support. But both are predictably on hand for the championship match in Liverpool, during which—in the tradition of the series—all stops are pulled out as the cocky underdog faces off against a champ who—per the formula—is far too dismissive of his callow opponent. A good deal of blood is spilled in the ensuing battle, which goes back and forth as it goes the distance. What else would you expect?

Coogler has obviously not reinvented the wheel here; he’s brought the “Rocky” template that Stallone fashioned in the earlier films into the next generation, but certainly doesn’t fiddle overmuch with its details. That’s most evident in his treatment of Rocky himself, whom his script not only invests with the same galumphing likability the guy’s always had but also puts into mortal danger to ratchet up one’s sympathy as well. And Stallone, relishing the chance to play the character again, fills out the writing with his familiar aw-shucks shtick. It wouldn’t be a great surprise if he were recognized with an Academy Award (or at least a nomination) for his performance; John Wayne, after all, won an Oscar for one just as redolent of his past glory.

As colorful as Stallone is, however, it’s Jordan who’s the linchpin in the picture’s success. If he wasn’t able to make you root for Donnie, “Creed” wouldn’t work however much sauce Rocky brought to the dish, and Jordan’s mixture of intensity and vulnerability is key. He’s so good that you don’t even mind an ending that seems to invite a sequel, though you might blanch at the thought that it could extend to the same number of installments Stallone’s series did. Nobody else in the cast makes the impression of the two stars, but Thompson is certainly an ingratiating love interest for Donnie, Rashad does the strong-but-concerned mother bit with grace, and Graham McTavish gets a few juicy moments as Conlan’s cunning manager. Bellew is convincingly surly as Conlan, too, with a physique to match.

Credit must also go to cinematographer Maryse Alberti and editors Michael P. Shawver and Claudia Castello, who play as great a role in the visceral excitement of the fight sequences as Coogler and Jordan do. (Creed’s first fight, done in what appears to be a single take, is especially impressive in choreographic terms.) The rest of the craft contributions are first-rate, including Ludwig Goransson’s score, which of course makes room for Bill Conti’s “Rocky” theme at an appropriate point.

So if you doubted that the “Rocky” franchise could use still another episode, “Creed” should make you a believer.