The production history of Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur was marred with delays, a producer/director change, and a complete refurbishment of the story, with a total of six writers credited on the final product. Feasibly due to this overhaul the end result is a Pixar-by-numbers film that cannibalizes their past, better efforts. It excels on every technical level and many of the visuals are downright stunning, but it ultimately feels uninspired. It’s a perfectly good film (as the title suggests) and will certainly keep kids hyped up throughout. It’s just not great.
The Good Dinosaur asks what if the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs in real life missed the Earth. Dinos have evolved like primitive humans did – developing agriculture and building shelters. The film follows a young Apatosaurus named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) and his “dog” Spot, a feral human child. Spot is voiced by Jack Bright, who’s wicked good at grunting and howling but never actually speaks a word. Together they travel the unforgiving wilderness as Arlo tries to get back home to his family who hate his guts for basically ruining their lives.
Along the way they encounter a lineup of secondary characters that add some much needed flavor to the story. There’s a group of T-Rex cowboys headed up by Sam Elliott (who steals the whole show with his honey barbeque voice), a slightly deranged triceratops, and a gang of religious extremist pterodactyls that follow the “Storm.” These suckers made for truly gnarly villains. Their leader Thunderclap (Steve Zahn) is one of the coolest Disney villains to come along in some time. Another scene involving groundhogs will surely have kids rolling in the aisles.
Arlo and Spot depend on each other as they traverse harsh terrain and merciless weather. They bond over a shared sense of loss and the need for companionship. There are some genuinely touching moments, particularly when they talk about their families, but for the most part none of the big emotional moments feel earned. Many of the “sad” parts feel cheap and manipulative – with big sweeping music and poignant beats that occur again and again. It’s like Arlo wrapping his cute green tail around your neck and throttling until you cry, dammit, cry!
The Good Dinosaur is supposed to be about this big journey but it feels surprisingly small in scope. There’s no real sense of distance, like Arlo was really only a couple miles from home. The landscape he travels, however, is gorgeous. The river, the mountains, and the trees all look absolutely stunning. The water is as photorealistic as it gets (outside of, you know, a movie that’s not animated).
Pixar has always been aces at putting the story first and the animation second. It doesn’t feel that way this time. The story plays out like a checklist of emotional beats leading up to the standard “face your fear, find your courage” moment that can be found in almost every Pixar film. It’s a reworking of a lot of material we’ve seen before laid over a thin plot and beautiful animation. Coming on the heels of Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur is a Pixar B-movie. It’s sure to please, but will be relegated on the shelf next to Cars 2 and A Bug’s Life.