Editor’s Note: The Good Dinosaur opened in wide theatrical release November 25, 2015.
For the better part of two decades, Pixar has been synonymous with quality-driven animation, technical innovation, and four-quadrant appeal, a combination few, if any other, animation studios could claim with any consistency. That combination was, once again, evident just several months ago when Inside/Out, Pixar’s 15th animated film, arrived in multiplexes, to critical acclaim and box-office approval. Coming only a few months later, Pixar’s much-delayed 16th film, The Good Dinosaur, isn’t likely to fail commercially (the Pixar brand and all of its attendant good will, all of it earned, guarantees that much), but it also fails to reach the narrative or visual heights of both its immediate predecessor and even many of Pixar’s middling, less inspired efforts, due less to the central idea or conceit (more about that later) and more to its surprisingly unimaginative execution. Its simple, reductive story, clear-cult self-empowerment through adventure theme, and the best computer animation Disney money can buy, however, all but guarantees The Good Dinosaur will enthrall the targeted, preteen audience.
We’re not meant to ask questions, of course, just sit back, relax, and enjoy the meticulously crafted spectacle and set pieces. . .
To be fair, the central conceit – that the dinosaurs didn’t perish in an extinction-level event (otherwise known as the asteroid that smashed into the earth 65 million years ago) – deserves credit for its almost irresistible “What If?” promise. Unfortunately, Pixar takes that idea and does little with it beyond dressing up a Homeward Bound-inspired story with Western genre conventions, pitting a diminutive dinosaur (all things being relative, of course), Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), not only against the fierce elements of a primeval, untouched world, but against predators and his crippling inner fears and anxieties, fears and anxieties reflective of contemporary parenting standards that place concerns about absolute safety (impossible) over fear of physical harm (possible, but highly unlikely). Arlo, of course, doesn’t enter the big, bad world willingly. He’s literally swept away by a flood, awakening hours later on a riverbank with only his late father’s instructions (“Follow the river”) to guide him home.
Before Arlo almost meets his maker in the flood, however, The Good Dinosaur takes moviegoers on a tour of Arlo’s world. The dinosaurs we meet, including his parents, Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Ida (Frances McDormand), and his two siblings, Libby (Maleah Padilla) and Buck (Marcus Scribner), have the rudiments of civilization, specifically the transformative transition from hunter-gatherers to settlements and farming, including planning for the future. Significantly smaller than his siblings, Arlo frets and worries about making his mark (literally, it’s a sign of accomplishment in The Good Dinosaur’s universe), something to impress his parents and prove his worth to them and, by extension, himself. Every attempt ends in abject failure. It’s his last failure, his reluctance to kill a captured, corn-eating “critter,” a feral human child he later dubs “Spot” that leads to the impromptu, unexpected encounter with the life-changing flood and later, a swiftly moving river.
. . .the central conceit – that the dinosaurs didn’t perish in an extinction-level event (otherwise known as the asteroid that smashed into the earth 65 million years ago) – deserves credit for its almost irresistible “What If?” promise.
Arlo’s journey back involves a few important life lessons, including the one about being all you could be (An Army of One), overcoming your fears and anxieties and pursuing your dreams (or something along those lines), and learning self-reliance and the benefits of risk-taking both for himself and later, when Spot, newly ensconced as his best friend forever (Arlo even dreams of bringing Spot home and giving him pride of place next to his bed), becomes the target of predatory pterodactyls, the closest The Good Dinosaur comes to actual villains. Arlo also encounters a family of fearsome-looking T-Rexes and cattle farmers eager to enlist Arlo’s aid against nefarious cattle rustlers and herding stray cattle (it’s tougher than it looks). Arlo has to fall, often literally, often painfully, before he can get up and walk. He has the talking part down, as do all of the other dinosaurs. They’ve managed to develop a recognizable culture (ours, more or less) and language (also ours) all without opposable thumbs.
We’re not meant to ask questions, of course, just sit back, relax, and enjoy the meticulously crafted spectacle and set pieces (most of them featuring Arlo bumbling, stumbling, falling, and injuring himself) and Arlo’s self-empowering journey. That’s all well and good – and there’s no denying Pixar is second to none when it comes to next-level computer animation – until the mismatch between the cartoon-level dinosaurs and the photorealistic, national parks-inspired backgrounds and environments (again, exquisitely rendered) makes it difficult, if not impossible, to ignore the surprisingly ill-conceived decision to combine the two parts. Either the dinosaurs should have been more photorealistic – a non-starter given the target audience – or the backgrounds and environments should have been more stylized – the more obvious solution – but deliberately choosing to combine the two is a decision that should have never been made. The target audience, however, probably won’t care. They’ll be clamoring for The Good Dinosaur merchandise in no time at all, just as the Disney gods intended.
Though sure to appeal to its target audience, the thin plot of The Good Dinosaur, as well as the animation combining cartoon-style characters with photorealistic backgrounds, relegate the film into one of Pixar's lesser offerings.