In Pixar’s 20 years of feature films, they’ve proved to be the most trustworthy animation studios for family entertainment in America, if not the world. With almost their entire catalogue filled with memorable and cherished properties, you can feel safe walking into a Pixar film, taking your seat, and waiting for the emotion to flow. Unfortunately, it seems like they may have flown too close to the sun by releasing their second film in one year; The Good Dinosaur doesn’t quite capture the magic we have come to expect. Now it could be that it’s still in the shadow of Inside Out (which could very well be one of the studio’s best films to date), and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a bit teary by the film’s end, but The Good Dinosaur doesn’t amount to much more than a solid family movie that you’ll have forgotten about within a couple weeks.
But don’t sweat too much. This is still Pixar, and even on a slow lap they’re able to bring some serious charm and creativity to a project. Something that seems strangely absent from the marketing is that The Good Dinosaur is a western/boy-and-his-dog story. Here the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs was just a tad off its mark and flew right on by Earth, leaving the dinosaurs to keep on keeping on. The film picks up much later, with a family of hard-working (and very American) herbivores trying to run a farm and ensure they can grow the crops they need to make it through the next winter. Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), the easily-frightened youngest of the family who is failing to pull his weight around the farm, gets pulled into some trouble over a “critter” (which proves to be a young human, later named Spot) and ends up getting carried far away down a river after trying to chase him off. The two soon form a bond and begin a journey together as they try to find their way back to Arlo’s farm.
What’s really fun about The Good Dinosaur is that while the dinosaurs are all armed with a smile and a conversation, everything else, including the humans, are totally animalistic. Spot, as the name may imply, is given the roll of man’s (dinosaur’s) best friend, portrayed both by his mannerisms and in the way he is treated by the movie’s dominant species. He jumps around on all fours, growls, tracks things by scent, and howls at the night sky when he’s feeling forlorn. Spot’s doglike qualities allow the character to play the canine-card, instantly affording him audience compassion, and with an adorable and relatable human face added to the mix he quickly steals the spotlight and becomes the real star of the movie.
But that was a battle already half-won by the largely forgettable Arlo, a creation who ranks pretty far down on the list of Pixar’s best. The easily startled, undersized dinosaur shtick is cute in the film’s early scenes, but as time goes by he proves too reactive to be a captivating personality. With one very notable exception towards the film’s end, Arlo is really just going along for the ride and fails as an effective dramatic engine for the film, especially given the character’s whole arc is about him trying to take charge and ‘make his mark’ on the world.
Perhaps the bigger problem though is in Arlo’s design. Pixar are renown for striking a balance between entertaining both the adults and children of the audience, but The Good Dinosaur falls on the Cars end of the spectrum and feels particularly kiddy. Arlo, and the rest of the dinosaurs for that matter, are thusly given a goofy, comical design that too often thematically and emotionally disarms the story. The world itself can actually be quite gorgeous, but this too is problematic when the overly saturated, cartoonish designs clash with the wonderfully rendered wilderness. There are still flashes of Pixar’s patented visual candy; pterosaurs ominously stretching below the clouds like inverted shark fins or Arlo and Spot kicking up fireflies in the night, but moment to moment it feels sub-par for the studio.
The western/dinosaur marriage is also not always as successful in practice as it is in concept. The cattle-rustling raptors are a lot of fun and the T-Rex cowboys are a stroke of genius, but the sparseness inherent in the frontier setting makes The Good Dinosaur‘s world seem (perhaps unfairly) a little half-formed. For those like myself tickled by the movie’s concept, you can forgive the lonely world and its disparate occupants, but it leaves the audience without the sense of discovery and wonder that should come standard in a film like this. Arlo’s farm turns out to be the most well constructed and organized thing we get to see in the film, so rather than seeing him step out in to a bigger brighter world, it just feels like there really isn’t anything else out there. Which of course means there isn’t all that much for Arlo and Spot to do while they are out journeying. It also starts to beg the question of why the movie spent time setting this up as an alternate timeline and didn’t just give it a prehistoric setting to begin with. Yes, dinosaurs and humans never existed at the same time, but that’s hardly been an issue in children’s entertainment before.
Ultimately, Pixar on an off-day is better than most animation houses out there, and The Good Dinosaur is, despite its problems, still a solid and at times touching children’s film. It definitely isn’t as intelligent as Inside Out, or as emotionally powerful as Up, but there’s fun to be had on the way, and if that ending doesn’t get you all teary-eyed and mushy, I’m afraid you may be dead inside.
Not Pixar’s best effort, but it’s got it where it counts; The Good Dinosaur is a little undercooked, but a safe bet for an enjoyable movie to take the kids to.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10