Pixar wowed audiences earlier this year with the beautiful and emotional Inside Out, a critical and commercial success that also happened to be one of the studio’s most inventive films yet. The Good Dinosaur is the animation giant’s second offering this year, and although it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of its predecessor, it should make for great family viewing over the holiday.
Imagining a world where prehistoric creatures survived a catastrophic event that would have resulted in their extinction, The Good Dinosaur begins with a family of Apatosaurs that manage a small farm near the base of Clawtooth Mountain. Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) is smaller than the rest of the family, and scared of just about everything, which makes him a frequent target for pranks and ridicule at the hands of his siblings. But Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) believes the boy just needs a chance to prove his worth, and the two set out on an adventure to track down a “critter” that has been helping itself to the family’s food stores.
When tragedy strikes, Arlo blames the strange creature, and his decision to pursue it deeper into the forest results in a calamity that finds Arlo washed up on the shore of the riverbank, hundreds of miles from home, and rescued by the same creature he was chasing – a feral human boy named Spot. Despite feelings of mistrust and suspicion, Arlo agrees to team up with the child in hopes of finding his way back home to the rest of his family.
The Good Dinosaur has been billed as a story about a boy and his dog – only in this case, the boy is a dinosaur, and the dog is a human. It’s an interesting conceit, and director Pete Sohn mines plenty of warmth and humor from the idea. Equally amusing are the different archetypes applied to some of the supporting dinosaur characters, such as a storm-chasing group of Pteranodons or a trio of cattle-driving Tyrannosaurs whose leader is voiced by Sam Elliott.
But it’s the moments between these ideas where The Good Dinosaur suffers a bit. Time and time again, Pixar has shown an uncanny ability to tug at our heartstrings and evoke a genuine emotional response, but much of this film seems more like a retread of material that we’ve already seen before, rather than something new and exciting. Disney is no stranger to films where the protagonist loses a parent and is forced to grow up faster than expected (The Lion King is a prime example), and the story of a wild, unruly companion feels like it’s borrowing pretty heavily from Lilo and Stitch.
Shortcomings aside, The Good Dinosaur is still a heartwarming and enjoyable film that families will no doubt flock to over the long holiday weekend – and from a technical standpoint, it might also be Pixar’s greatest achievement yet. The stylized designs of the characters create a sharp contrast with the backgrounds and environments, all of which look remarkably lifelike, and there are plenty of moments where you’ll swear that you’re watching actual video footage, rather than animation. It’s just a shame that the narrative doesn’t quite measure up to the visuals.