Any movie coming from the animators at Pixar would undoubtedly pale in comparison to this past summer’s sure work of genius that was Inside Out. But when that film is a lesser effort from the studio like The Good Dinosaur is, the difference is stark and monumentally unflattering.
The shame of it all is that The Good Dinosaur starts off with an interesting and promising premise. In an alternate version of history, the asteroid we know to have slammed into Earth and caused the massive ecological collapse that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs and ultimately led to the rise of the man misses its mark. Million of years or so pass and dinosaurs have evolved language and culture. They have not physically evolved all that much, so don’t even think about the fact that they don’t have the opposable thumbs needed to create some of the tools that we see a family of apatosauruses use to maintain their small farm.
Into this family comes Arlo, the runt of the siblings hatched from a clutch of eggs laid by his mother. Unlike his brother and sister, he is rather skittish and fearful of the world. His father encourages him the best he can, but to little avail. One such attempt gets wildly out of hand and results in the death of Arlos’ father, something for which Arlo can not forgive himself.
Once all of this has been established, the movie’s second act kicks off with the pre-requisite separation of Arlo from the rest of his family, necessitating his journey back to his family. Joining him on the trip is a small, leaf-diaper glad human child who acts more like a dog than anything else. That’s right, this is a boy and his dog story where the boy is the dog. The two have series of often rather random, episodic encounters along the way, including a moment where the two eat some psychedelic berries – Really Pixar? – that serve more as an excuse for some gags than actually advancing the plot. Finally, as he draws close to home, Arlo finds himself in a situation where he will need to finally overcome his fear.
The Good Dinosaur plays with a number of themes which we have seen in numerous Disney and Pixar films before. We’ve seen the dead parent trope in Disney films going all the way back to Bambi. Arlo’s guilt over his perceived role in his fathers’ death and the emotional journey he needs to go on to deal with it specifically echoes The Lion King. The role reversal of a big, monstrous character being comically afraid of a small human child feels lifted directly out of Monsters, Inc. Unfortunately, The Good Dinosaur does nothing new with these ideas, provides no new spin on them. And for all their familiarity, or perhaps because of their familiarity, the film seems unable to solidly establish emotional stakes for Arlo, leaving the whole affair rather flat and bland.
To their credit, the animators at Pixar do a create job in creating a nearly photorealistic environment for Arlo’s adventures. The problem, though, is that the design of the dinosaurs and humans is much more cartoonish and stylized than the setting that they inhabit. The two styles do not mesh well as the characters sit uncomfortably in the world the supposedly inhabit. It is a visual frisson that leaves one wondering if the only reason that Pixar embarked on the film to begin with was to perfect their process for animating water with creating a compelling story and world a distant, secondary consideration.
The Good Dinosaur had a troubled development history, with original director Bob Peterson being replaced by Peter Sohn after Peterson couldn’t come up with a suitable ending for the film. Both receive various credit for the film’s story and screenplay. And while a movie should be judged on just the finished product, it is hard not to feel that whatever was done to try and salvage the film from the troubles it was having was just not enough.