“The Good Dinosaur” nails the Pixar formula, taking an original story and executing it with impeccable animation. Like the studio’s previous films, it is filled to the brim with sharp writing and visually stunning gags. What makes the film stand out is it has enough deep-voiced, dinosaur-shaped father figures to evoke more than a little childhood nostalgia. Ultimately, this movie is exactly what Pixar does best — a kid’s movie with enough heart, subtlety and animation to capture any audience.
In Pixar’s retelling of evolutionary history, the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs missed Earth, leaving dinosaurs to develop as the planet’s premier intelligent species. In the absence of genocidal space rocks, dinosaurs have developed everything from fire to cattle herding. Arlo, the title character, works with his family of Apatosauruses to farm corn until he is washed down the river and far away from home amid a freak storm. The movie shows his journey back, complicated by historically accurate Velociraptors predatory Pterodactyls and, of course, Arlo’s doubts and insecurities. Thankfully, Arlo doesn’t have to do this alone; he meets Spot, a prehistoric “caveboy” he saves from a trap.
Spot and Arlo’s relationship is where the movie shines. Their interactions are pure-hearted and comedic, but trail into gut-wrenchingly emotional as the two connect on their shared past. Despite language, size and species barriers, the two form an unbeatable team, hell-bent on finding home and family.
For any other studio, this relationship would have been downright impossible. The human character plays the dog and Arlo the boy. If that was not made obvious by name choice alone, Spot runs on all fours, sniffs the ground and rides on Arlo’s head, tongue flapping in the wind. But despite his distinctly animal behavior, Spot never comes across as the beast to Arlo’s civilization. He comes across exactly as he is: a human boy, lost in a confusing world, with just one large, green friend to rely on.
For those unfamiliar with this movie’s rocky history, Pixar religiously releases a single feature-length film every year. Last year, “The Good Dinosaur” was delayed and this year, for the first time ever, Pixar released two movies in the same year. If competing with the summer release “Inside Out” wasn’t enough to deal with, the movie also switched directors midway through development, losing director Bob Peterson (Up), and completely replaced its previously star-studded voice cast, which included Neil Patrick Harris, Bill Hader and Judy Greer.
Thankfully, none of the cracks of the process show in the product. The movie is polished and a marvel of animation. The landscapes and “critter” animation went for an almost photo-realistic effect; some landscape shots would not look entirely out of place in an episode of “Planet Earth.” The voice acting is moving and filled with nuance; Sam Elliot and Jeffrey Wright were particularly memorable in their performances. The plot, though familiar and perhaps derivative, is tight.
However, after viewing “The Good Dinosaur,” one might feel that Pixar has been leaning too heavily on visual storytelling and snappy execution to make up for lack of interesting plots. Pixar has never produced complex narratives, because they never needed to. “Toy Story” was just a classic buddy-cop movie, but Buzz and Woody were likeable enough that most audiences didn’t mind. However, in “The Good Dinosaur,” the plot felt empty at times. Perhaps it was the world’s relatively sparse population, or the lack of actual dialogue between the two main characters. Whatever it was, I found myself wanting just a bit more when the credits rolled.
Regardless, the Pixar magic is definitely not gone. Laugh, cry a little and feel oddly connected to an animated dinosaur as you watch Arlo find friendship, his way back home and his path through life.