The Good Dinosaur has had quite a journey on its way to theaters. The film has been in various states of production since at least 2010, and what was originally meant to be Pixar’s big summer 2014 release was pushed back yet again, supposedly for a complete overhaul. That turned out to be the smart decision, because this is easily the slightest film the studio’s ever produced. It’s a charming little film for the kindergarten crowd, certainly, but anyone older than that won’t too find much here to get excited over. Releasing this so soon after their summer masterpiece Inside Out makes The Good Dinosaur feel more like a victory lap than their next legitimate outing.
What if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs simply passed us by?
That’s the question the film poses in its opening moments. Millions of years later, dinosaurs have stayed largely the same, but have evolved the knowhow to build houses, plant crops, etc. Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) is the runt of an apatosaurus family, afraid of his own shadow and primed for an adventure to overcome his fears. When his poppa (Jeffrey Wright) is swept away in a flood, Arlo blames a feral human child, and chases him back out to the river. When the two find themselves lost in the wilderness, Arlo is forced to depend on the kid, whom he affectionately names Spot, to help him survive and find his way back home.
That’s the whole story. It’s about as simple a “baby dinosaur leaves home” story as you’re ever likely to find. Along the way, Arlo meets a handful of interesting characters who teach him a thing or two about conquering his fears. The first character he meets is a styracosaurus named Forrest (director Peter Sohn), who collects pets to protect him from the elements. He shows Arlo the value of keeping companions like Spot. Later, Arlo and Spot meet a family of T-Rexes herding yaks across the plains, cowboy-style. Their patriarch (Sam Elliott, naturally) shows Arlo his battle scars, telling him that living in fear is no way to live.
Perhaps the film’s most striking choice is the decision to place stylized, cartoon dinosaurs against a photo-realistic background. It’s not the first time someone has tried this; just look at The Croods, or even Disney’s own 2000 film Dinosaur. (Does anyone remember Dinosaur?) In those cases, the CG dinosaurs were placed against live-action backdrops. Here, Pixar has completely rendered their own environments, and the effect is stunning. It’s a literal uncanny valley, which makes the characters pop out even more. The dinosaurs themselves are big and bulky, with round, friendly shapes. Arlo and all the other ‘good’ dinosaurs look just like the plastic dinosaur toys you remember playing with as a child.
On that note, it’s easy to tell the film’s ‘good’ characters from its not-so-good characters. After a particularly rough storm, Arlo meets a pack of pterodactyls who follow storms religiously. (“The storm provides!”) These guys are jagged and angular. It should come as no surprise that Arlo’s final test of courage is up against these storm chasers. While this confrontation is predictable, their entrance feels like a moment ripped from a Spielberg film. Like a group of sharks, their fins come down from the clouds above, taunting Arlo as they circle around him. It’s an image that doesn’t quite make logistical sense (Did they have to fly upside down to pull that off? Do they do this often?), but in the moment it’s fittingly spooky.
The Good Dinosaur tugs at similar heartstrings to The Land Before Time, though never as profoundly sad as that film’s real tearjerker moments. One particularly powerful scene finds Arlo and Spot bonding over their lost families. No words are exchanged, but it communicates their kinship better than dialogue ever could. Spot doesn’t have much backstory to begin with, since he’s basically a human dog, but this one scene is enormously affecting. Young or old, dinosaur or feral kid, we all know how it feels to lose a loved one. It’s that sense of loss, and the fear associated with it, that drives The Good Dinosaur forward.
And of course, what Pixar film is complete without an accompanying short? The short cartoon that precedes The Good Dinosaur is Sanjay’s Super Team, about a young boy who imagines the deities his father worships as a band of superheroes. It’s a dazzling little short, one of the best (and most adorable) the studio has produced in quite some time. Pixar clearly had trouble cracking the Good Dinosaur story, and wound up breaking it down to its simplest form. The end result is the cinematic equivalent of training wheels. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing, but it makes it hard to recommend this film to anyone who doesn’t have small children. If anything, go for the short.Liked This? Share It!