For the first time, Pixar is releasing two films in a single year. Inside Out was unleashed last June to critical acclaim and blockbuster box office.
The Good Dinosaur is a simpler, more traditional tale of adventure and maturation. While it plays on a more recognizable level of engagement, it still manages to showcase Pixar pride, as it careens from sensitivity to surprisingly dark elements of antagonism, displaying a little more menace than the title suggests.
Photo courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios
Maybe Pixar fans will feel let down by the primitive screenwriting, but there’s much to love about The Good Dinosaur.
Sixty-five million years ago, a meteor missed its collision with Earth, sparing the dinosaurs. Millions of years later, Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Ida (Frances McDormand) have built a farm, harvesting corn with help from their children, including runt Arlo (Raymond Ochoa).
A tiny Apatosaurus who struggles with fear, Arlo tries to impress his supportive father, but can’t quite make his mark. When Henry is swept away by violent weather, Arlo is determined to carry on with household duties, only to be distracted by Spot (Jack Bright), a feral human who loves to snack on the dino family’s winter stock of corn.
Attempting to hunt Spot, Arlo is separated from his homestead, soon lost in the wild. Won over by Spot’s canine-like loyalty, Arlo finds an unlikely friend, with the pair setting out to return home, encountering a few unbalanced creatures along the way who plan to do them harm.
Making his feature-length directorial debut is Peter Sohn, a Pixar vet handed an iffy premise. Thankfully, Sohn has a vision that brings down the bigness of the setting, arranging a straightforward tale of Arlo’s journey.
Arlo is surrounded by loved ones, but just doesn’t have the required bravery, complicating his relationship with Henry. Keeping up with Disney-style trauma, Arlo’s father is soon taken away by forces of nature, leaving the Apatosaurus to deal with his limitations.
The message of empowerment is thickly sliced, missing subtle degrees of awareness to deliver an obvious challenge to Arlo’s worldview, requiring the dino to face his fears during the long road home.
The Good Dinosaur is episodic, but never dull. The pair meet strange characters in the wild, including Styracosaurus Forrest Woodbush (Sohn), who carries an assortment of creatures on his massive horns.
Death is prominent, with Arlo and Spot aware of the losses they’ve suffered, which strengthens their bond. Thunderclap (Steve Zahn) and his gang keep the picture suspenseful as they return to terrorize the unlikely friends.
However, the feature is most assured in quiet moments of mischief and reflection, relying on the unspoken bond developing between the dino and human as they hunt for food and try to keep away from harm.
The Good Dinosaur has a few bleak moments that surprise, but there’s a nice counterweight of silliness, including an astonishingly successful urination gag and a side trip into hallucinations when the pair accidentally consume psychoactive berries to quiet their hunger pains.
Maybe Pixar fans will feel let down by the primitive screenwriting, but there’s much to love here, including superb animation (highlighting beautiful western vistas), colorful voice acting, and a genuinely endearing relationship between Arlo and Spot, securing The Good Dinosaur as the studio’s second gem of the year.