Pixar is a studio that is not without its flaws. Its first serious hiccup was in 2006 with Cars and then it really tripped over its own feet with the rock-stupid sequel, five years later. The first sequence of Up is a masterpiece, but the rest of the film fails to live up to its promise. I go back and forth on how trenchant WALL-E’s social commentary really is, especially with how it is wielded like a sledgehammer. Brave was strange step in the right direction, but then Monster’s University was completely forgettable. Earlier this year we had Pixar’s magnum opus, Inside Out, and now we have The Good Dinosaur.
The Good Dinosaur falls solidly into B-grade Pixar material, right alongside A Bug’s Life, Monster’s Inc., and Up. It hits all the notes you expect it to, but never reaches the astronomical precedent that the studio has managed to replicate with so many films, a feat that is truly incredible when one considers it. Even the classic Walt Disney animated films missed about as often as they hit. Seen in the massive shadow of Inside Out, Dinosaur pales in comparison. But it is nevertheless a film you don’t want to miss, particularly in the theater, where you can enjoy its magnificent visuals, which replicate the real world just as incredibly as Inside Out manufactured an imagined one.
The introductory scenes establish that the dinosaur extinction-causing comet narrowly missed the earth, so now dinosaurs coexist with early forms of humans. Apparently, they have also advanced evolutionarily to the point where they are capable of speaking and agriculture, an absurdity that the film plays completely straight, so you learn just to accept it. The eponymous dinosaur is Arlo, the runt of the litter of apatosauruses. His parents are Henry and Ida (Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand), and he has a tough brother and clever sister, Buck and Libby. They run a modest subsistence farm that keeps them fed and safe, but Arlo, small both in stature and courage, isn’t of much help.
After a family tragedy caused by the intervention of a small, mute cave boy, Arlo becomes separated from his home and is cast into a harsh wilderness, bruised and without much chance of survival. He and the cave boy, whom he names Spot, become forced to travel with one another, so Arlo can be reunited with his family once again.
The story sounds simpler than it comes across, because like many good Pixar films, the broad strokes can appeal to children, but they belie a much deeper, emotional story. The Good Dinosaur is about loss, forgiveness and playing the cards you’ve been dealt. Arlo’s character arc is one of the best in Pixar history, and is bolstered by a terrific, sensitive vocal performance by child actor, Raymond Ochoa. Without much in the way of a central antagonist other than the elements and his own limitations, Arlo carries most of the story on his slight shoulders, which sets the film apart from the rest of the ensemble-centric Pixar canon. That said, the supporting cast is filled with the voices of Anna Paquin, A. J. Buckley, Steve Zahn, and the great Sam Elliott. First-time feature-director Peter Sohn (whose likeness inspired the character of Russell in Up) makes a memorable cameo as Forrest Woodbush, a crackpot Styracosaurus whose advice provides the spark for the story.
The straightforwardness of the story holds it back from reaching the complexity of Pixar’s best films, but its visuals are among the absolute best in animation history. Sweeping landscape vistas reminded me of the thrilling flyover shots from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as a particularly wonderful shot of the characters’ silhouettes against a setting sun. In stark contrast are the designs of those characters, which are strikingly cartoonish in comparison to the photorealistic environments in which they dwell. Yet the contrast works perhaps even better than a more literal approach would, because the sight of an adorably green and wide-eyed little dinosaur shrinking back from cold, driving rain all alone in the world is an image you will not soon forget. On a brass-tacks level, I did not see the film in 3D, but can’t imagine missing it.
The Good Dinosaur is far from Pixar’s best work, but it is a great start to Sohn’s career, and a more-than-worthy entry to the studio’s superlative oeuvre.