Passing judgment on Pixar movies can be a dangerous task. Almost inevitably, any unforgiving critique will encounter strident challenges from Pixar enthusiasts. I can say quite confidently, however, that The Good Dinosaur may very well be the most under-hyped film Pixar has ever released. This dearth of publicity is the product of several factors, not the least of which is a release in the shadow of the highly-anticipated and much-appreciated Inside Out, also by Pixar, earlier in June. Throw in a rocky production process—with one change of director, a huge story and cast overhaul, and two revised release dates—and you have yourself a box-office flop in the making. Whatever the causes, the general awareness of The Good Dinosaur, directed by Peter Sohn (Partly Cloudy, Ponyo), remains astonishingly low, and its overall reception astoundingly tepid. While some might suggest that Pixar has overreached in its attempt to deliver two big animated films in one year, I beg to differ.
The Good Dinosaur’s trailer is cryptic even by Pixar standards, offering only a few scenes set to song with the prompt, “A single kindness can change everything.” For those who need more to go on than Pixar’s impressive track record, The Good Dinosaur tells the story of a young Apatosaurus named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), desperate to “make his mark” by contributing to the family farm like his siblings, despite being the 18-foot runt of the litter. (It may prove helpful to mention here that the film takes place in an alternate universe which assumes dinosaurs would have evolved to an English-speaking, agrarian lifestyle within a few million years had a certain meteor missed its target.) The cowardly Arlo finds himself stranded hundred of miles from home following an unfortunate string of events. The remainder of the film follows Arlo’s journey to find courage—and his way home—accompanied only by a feral, dog-like boy (Jack Bright). Along the way, viewers can look forward to a hilarious albeit scandalous scene involving the psychedelic results of consuming rotten fruit, as well as a brilliant voice cameo by the director himself as a survival-savvy styracosaurus.
Without giving too much away, I will say that The Good Dinosaur’s storyline does at times veer dangerously close to that of The Lion King, and abuses several well-worn character tropes along the way. Whether or not this is a bad thing presents something of a dilemma. While I myself am inclined not to care so long as the story itself is good, my fellow moviegoers found the lack of originality appalling. Indeed, I realize that for the many Pixar fans who rely upon these films to continuously innovate and explore new territory, The Good Dinosaur may be disappointingly predictable. That said, I wonder whether we Pixar aficionados might not sometimes expect too much from these films. Are the characters too familiar? Perhaps. But their archetypal roles make the struggles they face all the more compelling. Is the story fresh? Perhaps not. But the plot’s simplicity does facilitate a better connection to the world the animators have painstakingly created.
And what a world it is. By far the most notable accomplishment of The Good Dinosaur is its rich and vivid animation. The film’s visuals are at once barely noticeable and the most engaging element of the film. The sweeping vistas of rugged peaks and geyser-filled valleys are nothing short of breath-taking. Sohn drew inspiration from the real-life topography of Jackson Hole and Yellowstone for his film’s setting. Having stood at the foot of the Grand Teton mountain range just this past summer, I can personally confirm that the movie truly captures every last detail. The animators made a point of avoiding full-on photorealism, astutely choosing instead to use a “painterly realism” developed specifically for the film. You can see every water droplet on every leaf, though perhaps not every vein and rot spot. We thus begin to imagine that there really is a giant cartoon dinosaur running free through a no-less-majestic but slightly more photogenic version of the Wyoming wilderness. All of this sensory wonder is perfectly complemented by a flawless score by Mychael and Jeff Danna, whose work you might recognize from Life of Pi’s Academy-Award winning soundtrack.
The Good Dinosaur delights and entertains amidst a stunning natural backdrop with instantly relatable and lovable characters, but it doesn’t take us anywhere particularly new. Perhaps owing to the liability this film posed to Pixar with its pre-production road bumps, Sohn hesitated to take any risks with the storyline. While it may never be the kind of film you talk about at the dinner table, we can forgive the familiar territory The Good Dinosaur treads because it’s some pretty foolproof territory. The film delivers admirably on its promise, even if its prehistoric premise is not quite historic.
There’s a reason they didn’t title it The “Great” Dinosaur.