Talk about lousy timing. Pixar’s newest animated feature The Good Dinosaur, after dealing with a series of rewrites was also saddled with the misfortune of following Inside Out, widely considered by most major critics (and me) to be easily one of their best and most innovative films since Up. In contrast, many of the themes here will be pretty familiar to older moviegoers, especially if you grew up loving Don Bluth’s Land Before Time or The Lion King. But there’s a big difference between a somewhat derivative movie and a flat-out bad one, and luckily Dinosaur is much closer to the former.
Most of the film’s ambition is focused on world-building and its setting, a breathtaking recreation of the American Northwest during the prehistoric age. This lends itself to the frontier-like vibe of its universe, and it’s clear that Dinosaur is Pixar’s first attempt at a western (sorry, Woody). Gorgeous as they are, the environments are borderline photorealistic, providing an interesting contrast with the rather cartoonish character designs that somehow still works. Finding a happy medium, it never looks too dreary or too garish, and it helps to better highlight the expressions of the timid protagonist Arlo (Raymond Ochoa).
Arlo is a well meaning farm kid who assists his parents (a stern but kind Jeffrey Wright, and a somewhat underused Frances McDormand) and his siblings as they try to store up enough corn before winter hits. Hoping that his son can eventually overcome his fears, Poppa tasks Arlo with capturing the pest breaking into their silo and eating their stock- a young human child Arlo eventually names Spot (Jack Bright), but the boy doesn’t have the heart to finish the creature off.
As is so often too common in better children’s films, tragedy strikes the green brontosaurus family and soon poor Arlo finds himself separated from his loved ones, now having to fend for both himself and the small “critter” (the cowboy vibe is even woven through the dialogue) that had caused him so much grief before. In his quest to get back to his home near the mountains, Arlo and Spot trek across the Jurassic wilderness and bond as well as you’d hope while watching a Pixar film (or really any Disney produced picture, as this film recalls many of the company’s earlier films like Bambi among others).
Much of the film’s comedy comes from Arlo’s scared reactions at various encounters, as well as some fairly eccentric side characters- including a spaced-out styracosaurus (voiced by director Peter Sohn) who gives wildly inappropriate names to the various animals nesting on his horns, and a helpful trio of T-Rex cattle drivers led by the grizzled Butch (an engaging Sam Elliot). From there Arlo gradually begins to build his self-confidence, which comes in handy while having to later battle a gang of villainous pterodactyls.
While The Good Dinosaur is more geared towards younger audiences than perhaps Inside Out, or even something like Frozen or Big Hero 6 were, there’s enough drama and gravity to keep parents invested. Both Arlo and Spot deal with a sense of loss and their gradual maturation, so the film never feels too babyish or intelligence insulting in its tone.
That’s not to say its lack of ambition doesn’t sting a little. I would have enjoyed a few more twists in the story to make it feel more unique, but it knows what it wants to do and it executes it well. At a certain point I could correctly guess how Arlo would learn his lesson, but the quality of the direction and the high quality animation made up for it somewhat.
I think the film works as a more subdued counterpart to more frantic kids’ properties today (I’m looking at you, Minions. Nothing but love, but still), so I can definitely recommend it for families looking for something enjoyable during the Thanksgiving holiday. While it isn’t a truly great piece of cinema like other films in the Pixar lineup, Good Dinosaur is still pretty good as its title implies. It easily has more class about it than the Cars franchise, or many other animated movies in general.
On a personal note, I just realized this is my 100th published article for Freakin’ Awesome Network. Let’s have a dino dance party to celebrate!