Taking place in an alternate history in which the asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs never hit the Earth, the main character of The Good Dinosaur is a young Apatosaurus named Arlo. The smallest of three hatchmates, he lives with his family on a small homestead near the Clawtooth Mountains. In Apatosaurus society, every youngling needs to prove their worth to their families and thereby “make their mark”. Arlo’s larger and stronger siblings have no problem completing their tasks, but the small and cowardly Arlo lags behind them. One day Arlo’s father give him the task of killing a pest which has been eating their food supplies, but when he catches the pest in question- a young human caveboy, he can’t go through with. When Arlo and his father give chase, a tragic accident occurs and his father is killed. But the next time Arlo sees the caveboy, blind with rage, he chases him into a fast-flowing river and is washed many miles down-stream. Arlo needs to find his way back to his family and maybe conquer his fears along the way.
First, let’s talk about how this movie looks: absolutely gorgeous. Pixar’s rendering software seems to have taken another big leap forward, and this is the first movie to take full advantage of it. The film’s setting, which seems to be somewhere in the prehistoric American West, is absolutely stunning. There’s snow-capped mountains, swift-flowing rivers, and endless forests, all animated in stunning detail. (The water scenes are obvious beta-tests for Finding Dory of course, but they look incredible.) By contrast, the characters are animated in their characteristic simple, cartoony style. In fact, the visuals of this movie remind of the characteristic animation style of Studio Ghibli, with very simple human characters in front of incredibly lush backgrounds and settings.
But while The Good Dinosaur is a massive step-forward for Pixar in terms of visual and technical ability, it’s unfortunately a step back in terms of plot and characterization. Part of the problem is that this same basic plot, the main character goes on an epic journey and learns something about themselves along the way, is starting to wear thin. I mean Pixar themselves have done it themselves numerous times (Finding Nemo, Cars, Up…), and there’s nothing in The Good Dinosaur to differentiate it from all the other permutations. The film also fails to adequately develop its characters. Part of the problem with this is that Spot (the caveboy) doesn’t speak; he basically acts like an unusually intelligent dog, which is certainly cute but really limits the opportunities for, you know, dialogue.
The tone of the movie is also all over the place. I remember that at one point in the middle of the movie, there was a progression of scenes one after the other that proceeded like this. It starts with a scene that uses Spot to make a pee joke, followed by a (admittedly hilarious) scene where Arlo and Spot accidentally eat some mushrooms which send them on a drug montage right out of a Terry Gilliam film, and then followed by a scene where Arlo and Spot bond over their mutual dead parents. Seriously, the tone shift was so drastic and sudden at times I’m surprised I didn’t get whiplash. There are also some surprisingly dark moments for a children’s movie, including several instances of adorable furry creatures getting eaten by dinosaurs and one character who has a pet named Dream Crusher (“He keeps me from having unrealistic life goals”).
One last thing I want to mention, and this is admittedly minor, is that The Good Dinosaur is actually a pseudo-Western film. Both the setting (which seems to have been based off Yellowstone) and a few of the characters (at one point Arlo and Spot run into a family of Tyrannosaurus Rex ranchers) are based of the stylings and tropes of Western movies. But it’s not developed enough; the main character and supporting characters (sans the aforementioned T. Rexes) feel like they could have been dropped in from any other children’s animated movie, and there isn’t even any Western influence in the film’s score. Ultimately there’s only enough of it there to make it feel like a big wasted opportunity; I’d sure as hell like to see a real Western with dinosaurs from Pixar!
But like I said earlier for all its faults, The Good Dinosaur is not a bad film. It’s still visually stunning, adorable, and heartwarming. If it had been made by another studio, say Dreamworks for instance, it would probably be considered one of that studio’s best films. But the bar for Pixar movies has been set so high, especially since earlier this year they released Inside Out, which is still my personal favorite movie of the entire year. So go see The Good Dinosaur, you’ll almost certainly enjoy it. It just not one of the Pixar movies we’ll remember fondly forever the way we remember many of the others.