The ‘Good Dinosaur’ Is a Familiar Beast

Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur features some of the studios’ most dazzling animation yet, but its story, while satisfying, borrows a few tricks from its predecessors.

Pixar has always had a knack for tugging on the audience’s heartstrings a bit harder than others – one might even argue that the studio has secretly had stock in Kleenex ever since Toy Story 2’s “When She Loved Me” sequence turned audiences into a pile of mushed moviegoer.

The emotional sophistication of a Pixar film will always be one of its hallmarks – the studio never forces a tear or a lump in the throat, they tend to fall and build up organically. Speaking of – anyone still sobbing over the climax of Inside Out?

Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur marks yet another film that forces its audience to confront their feelings over the bond of its main characters. Past Pixar films have introduces unforgettable buddy pairings such as Woody and Buzz, Mike and Sully, Marlin and Dory, Remy and Linguini, Wall-e and Eve, Lighting McQueen and Mater… the list could go on.

Arlo the young dinosaur and Spot the young human make for the latest pairing of Pixar pals, with their film The Good Dinosaur, the studio’s 16th release and second effort of 2015, yet another buddy-driven success for the studio.

Longtime animator Peter Sohn takes his first shot at directing a Pixar film, and by all means, he succeeds at capturing the tone and striking the emotional balance audiences have come to expect from a Pixar film. The empathy is earned, and the story is sweet. However, The Good Dinosaur feels a tad bit safe compared to previous films in the studio’s lineage.

Pixar is known for taking risks. This is a studio that made millions of dollars and won an Oscar from a film with a primary storyline that revolves around a rat that prepares food for humans (Ratatouille). The Good Dinosaur falls on the other end of that spectrum. It’s a solid film that goes with what it knows instead of venturing out into the great unknown.

It’s a fairly safe bet to assume audiences are going to bond with a cute talking dinosaur and a cute, rambunctious cave boy that acts like a puppy. Who is immune to that much cuteness? Also, June’s Jurassic World proved that people still come out in droves for dinosaur movies, and Inside Out proved that people will go see anything with the Pixar logo (as they should). What’s a safer box office bet than a Pixar movie starring talking dinosaurs?

Countless Pixar and Disney tales have pitted two unlikely friends on an adventure of self-discovery. The heroes meet fascinating sidebar characters, endure a few close calls and grow closer to each other by the film’s credits.

The Good Dinosaur’s version of this tried-and-true formula finds a world where dinosaurs haven’t been wiped out by that pesky asteroid. In what appears to be an alternate universe set in what looks to be sometime in the 1800s, Arlo the young dinosaur (Raymond Ochoa) and his family run a dino-ranch where a harvest must be collected throughout the good months to make it through the harsh winter (on this week’s episode of Little House on the Prehistoric Prairie…).

Character-wise, Arlo is your quintessential chicken. Actually, he’s afraid of the dino-chickens his family keeps, so he might be a cut below the fraidy cat rank (uber-fraidy cat?). The members of Arlo’s family signify their good deeds and showings of bravery and grit (i.e., a hard-day’s work on the field), with a footprint mark on their silo. Poor Arlo has yet to “make his mark”, which worries his watchful father Henry (voiced with command by Jeffrey Wright).

When tragedy strikes, Arlo is left stranded by his lonesome in the middle of nowhere, accompanied only by a young cave boy named Spot (Jack Bright), a pesky child on the family farm who has found his way into Arlo’s company. Arlo pins his problems on Spot’s emergence, but he learns to lean on the lad. The young dino quickly finds out that navigating the unforgiving terrain to get home, filled with predators and harsh weather, might require some help of the human variety.

While The Good Dinosaur’s main story arch borrows heavily from films past, the film benefits from using this type of story the right way. If a film is going to take a familiar narrative route, it’s got to make sure to earn what it tries to get the audience to feel. Pixar’s storytelling brain trust is far too experienced to let a story like this feel cheap. As said, there’s not much revelation to be had with The Good Dinosaur, but its sweet-natured attitude helps its traditional approach feel welcome.

The film finds some originality with its aim to be something of a western. Mychael and Jeff Danna’s splendid, twang-y score sounds like something for a tale of cowboys, outlaws, general stores and cattle ranches. The characters talk like cowpokes, and a few of the supporting players – in particular a group of gruff-yet-genial T-Rexes/livestock wranglers are western archetypes. The great Sam Elliott’s voice is used to perfection for an T-Rex named Butch.

The Good Dinosaur’s ultimate success is, of course, in its animation. Some of the film’s visuals don’t even at times look animated. Certain landscapes, like a field of grass, look like they’re shot with a camera instead of animated with a computer.

Where The Good Dinosaur will fall in the lineage of Pixar titles remains to be seen. While the film doesn’t exactly meet the same emotional and storytelling highs as some of the studio’s best films, there’s still plenty to admire about the studio’s latest adventure. As the numbers show, a decent Pixar film is always be a welcome presence at the multiplex.

RATING 7 / 10