The Good Dinosaur is the latest release from Pixar Animation Studios and Disney. Directed by Peter Sohn, The Good Dinosaur takes place in an alternate reality from our own, a few million years after the meteor that was supposed to crash into Earth misses, saving the dinosaurs. Those few million years have led to some interesting evolutionary developments in the dinosaurs, like the ability to speak, domesticate animals, and grow crops. The main thrust of the story involves Arlo, the titular character, after he has been separated from his family and is trying to get home. Along the way he meets several characters who help him on his journey. While gorgeous to look at and hilarious at times, The Good Dinosaur lacks emotional depth and is essentially a retread of Finding Nemo, but in this case, Nemo finds himself.
After the initial sequence depicting the flyby of the meteor, the film flashes forward a few million years. We are introduced to a corn farm being tended by Poppa, voiced by Jeffrey Wright (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Angels in America). We see him tending to the field in various dinosaurly ways: using his head to till the soil, rocketing water out of his mouth to irrigate, etc. Soon he joins Momma, voiced by Frances McDormand (Fargo, Burn After Reading) in their house to witness the birth of their children. They have three, including Arlo who is the runt of the bunch. As Arlo grows up it’s clear he has a fear problem that his siblings do not. He has trouble earning his place amongst the family and thus making his mark, a point the film hits square on the nose about a dozen times by actually having the members of the family, who have earned it, make their mark on a kind of grain silo they’ve built out of rocks. Arlo’s fear problem comes to a head after he and Poppa discover that a creature (a human child—kind of a cave boy) has been stealing their food from the grain silo. After Arlo fails to kill the boy the way his father asked, Poppa sets off with Arlo in tow to catch him. Through a series of events that involves some heavy borrowing from The Lion King, Arlo ends up stranded on his own, trying to make his way back home.
He ends up bonding with the boy, who we learn is called Spot. This bonding scene is one of two very touching scenes in the film. Right around the time they bond they also eat some fermented fruit and go on an awesome drug trip. While hilarious, that scene is weirdly out of place. That’s this film in a nutshell though — some really beautiful stuff juxtaposed next to some stuff that doesn’t fit. This pattern follows down even to the way the film is animated. The water, the rocks, the plant life, they’re all GORGEOUS. Tactile and photo real are words I would use. But these beautiful, photo real elements are juxtaposed with highly stylized characters. Arlo and his family are kind of brachiosaurs. We also encounter some pterodactyls, velociraptors, tyrannosaurs, and even a triceratops (who for some reason has more than three horns). Some of the weird misshapenness of the dinosaur’s features could come down to advances in their species via evolution. That’s an idea I can get behind, but the filmmakers don’t really do anything with it and in practice it doesn’t quite work. To me, the dinosaurs and even Spot, looked cartoony with very exaggerated features. Juxtaposed with the hyper-real landscapes, they just looked weird. This was especially true when the characters would get wet. There were a couple times Arlo was soaked in some very real looking water which would glisten on his very cartoony skin. Weird.
The story felt a bit disjointed to me as well. Very episodic, again, in a way that Finding Nemo was, but without the strong emotional through line. Maybe it’s just because I never really connected with the story emotionally, but I found myself very distant from the film unless something overtly cool was happening. The drug scene was one moment that perked me up and engaged me. There’s also some stuff with the pterodactyls that is really neat and a great buffalo hunting scene with the tyrannosaurs. Some of these were great on their own, but they didn’t really work well together as pieces of the whole story. In a year where Pixar already released one film that was REALLY good, one wonders why they would release another that, at least to me, could have used some more script work.
None of this is to say that The Good Dinosaur is a bad film. It isn’t. It’s a very very ok film. From an animation perspective it’s some of the most beautiful work Pixar has ever done. From a story perspective, this feels more like something Disney would have released straight to video. Not terrible, but not up to Pixar’s usual pedigree. If you’ve got kids, they’re likely to dig it because there are dinosaurs and the animation is so beautiful. If you’re looking for some of the more adult oriented entertainment you usually get from a Pixar film, this one is lacking in the emotional depth of something like Inside Out, Finding Nemo, or Toy Story 3. The Good Dinosaur opens on Wednesday, November 25th.