The more I think about The Good Dinosaur, the more I warm to it. It’s a movie with a vibrant and emotional core, containing some truly affecting moments and a sweet story that is both intense and comedic. While watching the film, however, I was more conflicted and it took me a while to unpack why.
The feature film directorial debut of Peter Sohn (an artist on The Incredibles and Finding Nemo) from a screenplay by Primetime Emmy Award nominee Meg LeFauve (Inside Out, Captain Marvel), the movie takes place in a world in which the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs missed the earth, and life continued unobstructed by the most cataclysmic extinction event mankind is aware of. The story itself appears to take place in the present day, as dinosaurs have apparently evolved and discovered agriculture, farming and speech. There’s no big buildings though; you need opposable thumbs for that.
The Good Dinosaur focuses on a family of Apatosaurus; father Henry (Golden Globe Award winner Jeffrey Wright; Angels in America, Source Code), mother Ida (Academy Award winner Frances McDormand; Fargo, Mississippi Burning) and their three children Libby (Maleah Nipay-Padilla; Fruitvale Station, American Brawler), Buck (Marcus Scribner; Black-ish, New Girl) and Arlo (Raymond Ochoa; From Up on Poppy Hill, Monsters University), who live on a farm at the bank of a river. When Arlo, the nervous and neurotic runt of the family, falls into the river pursuing a creature stealing the family’s food, he is knocked unconscious and awakens far downstream by himself. The creature has also been washed downstream, an un-evolved human boy who Arlo quickly pairs up with and names Spot (Jack Bright; Monsters University, Disney Infinity 3.0). Together the two children attempt to find their way back upriver, encountering a dangerous and primeval world throughout their journey.
The Good Dinosaur is the latest effort from Pixar, whose output as a studio is almost unmatched in terms of consistent quality. Since it launched with Toy Story, Pixar has retained an extraordinary reputation for good children’s movies, running the gamut from Monster’s Inc., to Wall-E, to this year’s Inside Out. They’ve continued to commit to challenging, intellectual children’s entertainment while their many competitors are content to shovel out unimaginative and lazy features, because children will watch almost anything.
Pixar continues that dominance with The Good Dinosaur, a movie which contains many extremely moving sequences along with some beautiful themes and emotional beats. Arlo’s journey through the wilderness in an attempt to get home to his family is a fairly obvious metaphor for growing up and striking out on one’s own, but there are deeper messages of love, trust and cooperation littered throughout the film.
Pixar has also never been afraid to confront its audience with intense sequences (the finale of Toy Story 3 and the opening of Up both jump to mind), and they do so spectacularly here, with a series of strong scenes. These moments have a severe emotional charge to them and they resemble Disney’s most recent Golden Age in a lot of places, drawing comparisons to The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in terms of sheer storytelling impact.
These sequences can indeed be rather confronting for young children (the children seated behind me in the cinema had to be repeatedly assured by their mother that everything would work out in the end at one point), but that sort of challenging material is the stuff I remember most fondly from my childhood, dangerous parables of adversity and determination, and The Good Dinosaur does that so well.
Indeed, the film is so successful on an emotional and thematic level that it becomes easy to overlook its failings on a more mechanical one. The skeleton of the narrative is a relatively bare one, and Arlo and Spot’s journey doesn’t have a huge amount of memorable stops on it. The bulk of it plays as a series of skits, without much narrative throughline, only an emotional one. That heavy reliance on the movie’s heart may be successful for elaborating on its themes and characters, but it doesn’t help the pace of the story as a whole.
The film drags, containing a number of meaningless detours that could be removed without consequence, and it tries too hard to land its finale, putting a little too fine a point on the themes of the film. The result is a movie that plays as if the filmmakers had a solid and concrete idea of the themes and emotional undercurrent they wanted to get across but failed to come up with an entirely appropriate story structure to get there.
On a technical level, the film is utterly incredible. The animation here is breathtaking, with environments approaching photorealism and some of the best water effects I’ve ever seen. The characters themselves bear Pixar’s standard, slightly exaggerated proportions, an effect puts them at odds with the environment, but it works because (intentionally or not) it underlines how out of his element Arlo finds himself. Sohn and his animators do fantastic work with lighting, scene staging and editing, while the sound design particularly in moments of peril are pitch perfect. This is an impeccably constructed film and it’s a sight and sound to behold.
The Good Dinosaur is a good movie, but it’s a great experience, if that makes any sense. I found real value in the film’s emotion and characters, but the narrative itself was a little too threadbare and it dragged a little too much. It’s an astonishing achievement from a technical perspective, and from an emotional one it’s extremely successful, the combined effect of which is that, having seen the others, The Good Dinosaur is probably the kid’s film to see if you have to choose one.