The Good Dinosaur isn't as sophisticated as Disney/Pixar's best films, but still boasts a touching story and gorgeous animation.
The Good Dinosaur takes place in an alternate timeline where Earth was not struck by the massive asteroid that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Millions of years after the missed doomsday event, the apatosauruses "Poppa" Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and "Momma" Ida (Frances McDormand) survive by farming and growing their own crops, with assistance from their three offspring: the brawny if slow-witted Buck (Marcus Scribner); clever, though rascally Libby (Maleah Padilla); and the smallest, as well as the most anxious of the trio, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa).
When a tragic chain of events results in Arlo falling into the nearby river, he gets swept away into the wilderness, far away from his home and family. Arlo thereafter slowly, but surely, forms a friendship with a young cave-boy whom he names Spot (Jack Bright), and the pair set out to locate the Clawed-Tooth Mountains near where Arlo's family lives. However, to do that, they must brave a landscape full of creatures and other dinosaurs of both the friendly and not-so-friendly variety, while also overcoming whatever obstacles mother nature throws in their direction.
The Good Dinosaur is the latest offering from Disney/Pixar and the first full-length animated feature directed by Peter Sohn, who previously helmed the Pixar short "Partly Cloudy" and spent years working for the studio as a story artist/animator. Sohn took over from Bob Peterson (the co-writer/co-director of Up) part way through production on the film, but ultimately manages to leave his mark on The Good Dinosaur and create a 3D animated adventure that has its own unique identity - but at the same time, doesn't clear the high bar set by Pixar films past from a storytelling perspective.
Good Dinosaur is part archetypical coming of age centered around a friendship between two individuals of different species under extreme circumstances (a la The Black Stallion) and part Incredible Journey-style nature survival adventure - with the twist being that the protagonists are a dinosaur and his "pet" boy, in this case. While the film blends these elements to explore meaningful themes that will resonate with younger moviegoers (like, how fear is something you learn to live with, not conquer), those same ideas are not explored in depth as much as they could've been. Similarly, whereas Pixar's best films are thematically-rich pieces of storytelling without qualifications, Good Dinosaur is more strictly aimed at a younger audience - with regard to the ideas and concepts that it touches upon.
Part of the reason for that is that Good Dinosaur's screen story - credited to no less than five different people - is fairly conventional and hits a number of familiar plot beats (many clearly telegraphed ahead of time) that bring to mind a number of Disney animated fairy tales from around the mid-20th century. Its old-fashioned (read: outdated) narrative tendencies aside, the Good Dinosaur script work by Megan LeFauve (Inside Out) is carefully structured and leaves no story threads dangling - nor, for that matter, are there any extraneous subplots or characters in the film. Good Dinosaur may not be Pixar at its best level of storytelling, but it's still as good or better than many other family-friendly animated offerings in recent memory, for related reasons.
Animation-wise, The Good Dinosaur is as gorgeously-rendered and visually-crafted as any movie Pixar has produced. Moreover, with its beautiful panoramic shots of seemingly endless mountain ranges and skies, as well as a charmingly rustic score by Jeff Danna (Silent Hill) and Michael Danna (Life of Pi) to set the mood, Good Dinosaur counts as Pixar's first western, aesthetic-wise. Nature also functions as a key character in the story - one that can change from benign and welcoming to threatening, within the span of a single scene. The photo-realistic texture of the film's backdrops and scenery juxtaposes well with the more cartoonish and stylized design of characters (be they dinosaur, human, or other), making the sequences where Arlo and/or Spot's life is endangered by their surroundings all the more engaging for it. Good Dinosaur is worth seeing on the largest screen available for these reasons, but 3D is not as much a necessity since it doesn't noticeably enhance the overall viewing experience - at the same time though, 3D doesn't detract from it either (for those who prefer 3D when available).
The Good Dinosaur also riffs on western genre tropes with many of the supporting characters that Arlo and Spot cross paths with; including, grizzled "cattle-herding" Tyrannosaurus Rex Butch (Sam Elliott) and his children Ramsey (Anna Paquin) and Nash (A.J. Buckley), and a gang of bandit-like pterodactyls who go by Thunderclap (Steve Zahn), Downpour (Mandy Freund), and Coldfront (Steven Clay Hunter). Most of these side players, like the members of Arlo's family, do have distinct personalities yet are only onscreen for a limited time - and primarily serve to keep Arlo moving along on his journey (both literal and emotional), no more or less. For related reasons, most of the supporting characters probably won't be as well remembered as those in other Pixar movies, even with their unique western influence.
Good Dinosaur is most compelling (and entertaining) when it focuses solely on Arlo and/or Spot - which, fortunately, it does for a significant majority of its running time. Both characters are brought to life with not just vibrant vocal performances (by the youngsters Raymond Ochoa and Jack Bright), but also inventive personalities; for example, Arlo's habit of being easily scared is all the more touching and funnier because he's a dinosaur, while Spot is equally memorable thanks to his mixture of dog-like and boyish personality quirks. Similarly, Good Dinosaur is at its best when it simply features the pair together attempting to communicate with one another (which, again, is most of the movie) - and their story is so well told through visuals alone that it suggests the film as a whole might've benefitted from having little to no spoken dialogue (a la the first half of WALL·E).
The Good Dinosaur isn't as sophisticated as Disney/Pixar's best films, but still boasts a touching story and gorgeous animation. It doesn't reach the same heights of cinematic artistry as Inside Out managed earlier this year or that other Disney/Pixar offerings have over the course of the past twenty years now (yes, it has been that long since Toy Story came out), but The Good Dinosaur is another solid animated movie on its own terms - and is certainly worth seeing on the big screen, if only for its visuals alone.
In addition, The Good Dinosaur includes the Pixar short, "Sanjay's Super Team". Directed by longtime Pixar story artist and animator Sanjay Patel, "Sanjay's Super Team" is a funny, cleverly animated, and touching short inspired by Patel's relationship with his own real-life father. Those who go see The Good Dinosaur in theaters should be sure and arrive soon enough to make sure they don't miss the latest Pixar short, before the main attraction begins.
The Good Dinosaur is now playing in U.S. theaters nation-wide. It is 100 minutes long and is Rated PG for peril, action and thematic elements.
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