After the universal praise surrounding this summer’s Inside Out—which I was more than happy to join the choir for—Pixar’s second release in 2015 has often seemed overlooked by both families and animation enthusiasts. Indeed, despite featuring a rather nifty conceit about an alternate universe where dinosaurs did not go extinct, The Good Dinosaur has unfairly been shrouded by industry doubt and skepticism following a change in directors.
I wish that I could say that this has all proven unfounded. But while The Good Dinosaur has been sorely undervalued by industry cynics, I’d be lying if I declared this another Pixar triumph. In truth, The Good Dinosaur is neither an extinction-level event nor a magnificent achievement in family entertainment. It’s actually pretty much what the set-up promises: the tale of a boy, a dinosaur, and their adventure together. Depending on age demographics, your mileage will vary.
Reversing the age-old conceit of a boy and his dog, The Good Dinosaur features a film where the boy is the dog. In fact, Spot (voiced by a young Jack Bright) has no singular line of dialogue. But he certainly makes up for that with plenty of expression via cries of joy, pain, and occasionally feral howling. In this world where the meteor just barely missed Earth, eons of evolution have left dinosaurs the dominant form of life on the planet; humans are little more than pests to dino-civilization.
Largely agrarian and peaceful, it is in this reptilian utopia that we meet Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), the true “boy” of the yarn. Arlo is the youngest of three Apatosauruses. Birthed alongside siblings Buck and Libby, Arlo is the awkward duckling that cannot outgrow his fear of, well, everything. At first Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand) are chagrined at his cowardice, but as his siblings get older and come into their own, Arlo’s anxieties become increasingly trying. After tragedy strikes, tearing Poppa away from his family, Arlo must live up to his father’s deep shadow and even deeper footprints when he finds himself lost and far from home.
Taken far down the river by a freak accident, Arlo must befriend (and name) an orphaned human boy, Spot, if he hopes to reach home again before the first snow. Of course, they’ll meet some interesting and colorful characters along the way.
The best of The Good Dinosaur’s features is an apparent conceit from director Peter Sohn. Overtaking the troubled project, he rightly pinpointed the thrill of seeing dinosaurs animated in photorealistic environments. And the shrewd choice makes The Good Dinosaur a novelty for Pixar, as well as its competitors, since so many family films stress the cartoonish elements of American animation. By contrast, Sohn quite deliberately evokes the iconography of great American Westerns by the likes of John Ford. And indeed, Arlo’s world looks akin to a fantastical reworking of modern day Wyoming and Montana, and national parks like Grand Teton and Glacier.
When Arlo and Spot traverse mountaintops and sparkling streams, the contrast of Arlo’s outlandish design next to what could pass for actual HD photography is as vastly hypnotic as the unending landscape.
Unfortunately, the story that the filmmakers choose to fill that daunting geography with is as standard as the film’s luxo lamp logo.
The film struggles mightily with the issue that Arlo will never be that interesting to adults, and probably even the smallest kids. While the instinct to cast actual child actors as young Arlo and Spot is a canny one, Arlo’s arc feels like a cobbled together reworking of The Lion King, Homeward Bound, and even Jack London’s iconic White Fang. All of these elements are welcome, of course, but they do not gel into an overall satisfying narrative—never mind an original one.
The first act of the film follows many of the beats of Simba and Mufasa between Arlo and Poppa, right down the sweep of death that rushes him off screen. This sequence will probably affect little ones, but the punch is pulled so quickly in the subsequent time jump that it’s genuinely shocking Pixar chose not to milk true emotional anguish like all their best films do. As a result, the first act as a whole feels like padding before the feature begins in earnest with Arlo and Spot lost in the wind.
These two fare better than the film’s pedestrian family dynamics from the first half hour, but the duo is constantly overshadowed by the far more colorful characters they meet on the road. Standouts include Forrest Woodbush (voiced by Sohn himself), a Styracosaurus hoarder who roams the wilderness looking for cuddly mammals and birds to add to his collection of pets. This character allows the film to enter the bizarre for something that feels refreshingly unlike so many familiar tropes.
There is also a family of Tyrannosaurus Rex voiced by Sam Elliot, A.J. Buckley, and Anna Paquin. Played as bigger-than-life ranchers, the T-Rex fill the screen with that aforementioned mythic Western playfulness.
Yet, the heart of the movie must obviously remain with Arlo and Spot. Their journey of self-discovery and budding friendship undoubtedly will strike a chord with the youngest viewers, but for everyone else they’re never anything less than supporting players in their own movie.
And that is the real problem with The Good Dinosaur. As visually spectacular as the animated vistas can be, and as entertaining as specific vignettes might become, it mostly depends on whom Arlo and Spot are interacting with at any specific moment. Their personal journey and heartfelt connection is ultimately a placeholder for something that might have been once more ambitious in another draft.
It would be unfair to damn a family film that will work for exactly that kind of audience. But after Pixar reestablished its dominance in reaching across all generational demographics with something like Inside Out, it is nevertheless disappointing how little bite these dinosaurs actually offer.