An anomaly in many ways, Pixar’s sixteenth film, The Good Dinosaur, marks the first time the company has released two films in the same year—joining the animation mongrel’s other original feature, and summer success, Inside Out. Screenwriter, Meg LeFauve, however, red-hot following the simplistic emotional complexities of the latter, simplifies things with this heartwarming prehistoric romp—though ultimately proving too simple to join the Pixar pantheon in Peter Sohn’s directorial debut.
In a world where the dinosaurs haven’t gone extinct, a family of farming Apatosaurus mange more believably than the concept would suggest. In fact, if there’s anything the film accomplishes with confidence it’s introducing us to the value of family and responsibility. We see Poppa (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) plowing the field, showering and harvesting the crops, all using his head and elongated neck in a distinctly Apatosaurus way. With Momma (Frances McDormand), the family quickly grows by 3, as little Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) can barely feed the chickens while his literal big brother, Buck (Marcus Scribner), and sister, Libby (Maleah Nipay-Padilla), have earned their mud-caked mark on the family’s silo by plowing, watering, and harvesting in the footprints of their father.
As a result, LeFauve efficiently establishes a connection between family and responsibility—but failing to address the pressure the family places on earning said mark is just one flaw in the shallow script. Hitting the call-to-action beat so blatantly, the uninspired narrative begins as Arlo is violently swept away from his family, and tossed into the breathtakingly rendered prehistoric wilderness. Now stuck with a doglike boy, appropriately named Spot (Jack Bright), who Arlo was originally chasing from the farm before being swept away, the film plays a cheeky reworking of the ‘boy and his dog’ trope, where the boy is a talking dinosaur and the dog is the boy. It sounds bizarre, but the originally antagonistic relationship turns charming thanks to a handful of, often wordless, scenes, highlighted by a trippy body-switching sequence after the pair eat some strange fruit.
For as humorously disorienting as the animation team illustrated a fruit high, for as vibrant and photorealistic as endless plains and fluid water effects are implemented, equal praise should also be reserved for the practical use of Arlo’s cumbersome Apatosaurus body. Whether he’s scaling the side of a mountain or extending his already-lengthy neck to grab some out of reach fruit, the creative team never felt limited, but rather motivated to show talking dinosaurs in the most gorgeous and uniquely dinosaur-like way possible.
A prevailing survival tone is evoked through Arlo and Spot’s journey home. A pack of hungry pterodactyls, headed by Thunderclap (Steve Zahn), their dude of a leader, serves as the duo’s first encounter with nature’s savagery with a rather visual introduction. Yet, although their sole motivation for food supports the film’s survivalist angle, it also limits any promise of further characterization. Nature is the main antagonist, yes, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for writing hollow characters, which adds little depth or meaning to the hasty climax.
There are instances, however, where a new encounter beams with personality such as a trio of cowboy-esque T-Rexs, featuring the leather voice of Sam Elliot, Butch Cassidy himself, as the aptly named head-wrangler, Butch, but more obviously, the eventually disposed of archetypal wise man. It’s about midway through when a Western tone takes over, adding what would be a refreshing change of pace if it too didn’t feel like merely another means to an end.
The Good Dinosaur receives a 3/5.