The Good Dinosaur had a rough journey to the big screen. Its release date was pushed back twice, and at some point in its production it was reimagined and rewritten, with an entirely new cast as well as a new director and producer. But even worse than that, it has the misfortune of having been released in the same year as Pixar’s brilliantly creative and original Inside Out. By comparison, any film would feel dull and ordinary, and The Good Dinosaur is doomed to live in Inside Out’s shadow. But while The Good Dinosaur may be simple or even predictable when held up next to Pixar’s other work this year, it remains an excellent film in its own right. It’s a solid, classic coming-of-age story, with a fun twist, all wrapped in the kind of emotional storytelling and gorgeous filmmaking that Pixar does best.
The Good Dinosaur imagines a world where the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs missed, allowing them to continue evolving alongside and in place of mammals. In the millions of years following their near extinction, Dinosaurs have developed a society of sorts, able to communicate and work together to build lives for themselves. Herbivores become farmers, while carnivores would rather ranch or scavenge. But these aren’t the clothes-wearing, anthropomorphized animals like those in Disney’s upcoming Zootopia, living in cities and acting just like humans. They’re still very much dinosaurs, using the unique aspects of their anatomy rather than mimicking the way we do things today. Arlo is an Apatosaurus, the smallest of his family, who lives with his parents, brother and sister on a farm in the shadow of the Claw Tooth Mountains. Arlo’s father and mother teach their children how to plant, water, and harvest crops, but also the value of hard work and of “earning your mark” represented by a muddy footprint on their grain silo that is only earned when a member of the family does something worthy of remembering.
Arlo, however, seems destined never to earn his mark. Small, weak, and constantly afraid (even of the chickens the family keeps on the farm), Arlo spends his days lagging behind his more impressive siblings and parents, who carry the weight around the farm that Arlo either can’t or won’t. Hoping to inspire his son, Arlo’s father tasks him with the relatively simple task of catching and killing the pest that has been eating their crops, but when the trap is sprung Arlo finds himself unable to club the young, primitive human boy to death. He sets the boy free, but his father forces Arlo to chase after the pest, and the pair of dinosaurs follow the tiny human to the river as a monster storm sets in. As the weather worsens, however, father and son are trapped, and as the river starts to rise Arlo’s father sacrifices himself in the flash flood in order to boost Arlo to safety. Devastated, Arlo returns home, where their family must carry on without its strongest member.
Arlo tries to pick up the slack, but his fear his size mean he doesn’t make much of a difference. But when he angrily chases the primitive boy down to the river, the pair fall in and are stranded together far from home. Arlo and the boy, whom Arlo names Spot, must learn to work together in order to survive and make their way back to the Claw Tooth Mountains, through dangers and challenges Arlo could never have imagined facing. There are vicious flying scavengers who worship giant storms like the one that killed Arlo’s dad, T-Rex ranchers and Velociraptor cattle rustlers, strange hermits, deadly wild animals, and unforgiving terrain. And while Arlo’s instinct in every moment is to run, hide, or freeze, Spot is fearless. The little caveboy, more dog than human, is endlessly fearless and curious, confronting every trial head on, protecting Arlo from danger and encouraging him along the way. As the two begin to bond, Spot helps bring Arlo out of his shell, pulling or pushing him into new situations, until Arlo begins to see that the world is beautiful and rich once you get over your fear.
It’s a simple coming of age story, despite the dinosaur twist, but it’s effectively told by director Peter Sohn and writer Meg LeFauve. It helps that in Arlo and Spot the filmmakers have compelling and relatable main characters. Raymond Ochoa voices Arlo, and it’s impossible for your heart not to go out to the little dinosaur who just doesn’t fit in. We all either have been or have known that sort of frightened little kid, full of potential if only someone could bring it out of him. Spot, however, steals the show, with his adorable and hilarious dog-like antics, who has a surprising ability to tug at your heartstrings. (Spot is “voiced” by Jack Bright, though he has no dialogue.) The rest of the voice cast is filled out with familiar names, including Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand (the lone holdover from the original cast) as Arlo’s parents and Sam Elliot and Anna Paquin as Tyrannosaurs who impart some wisdom to Arlo. And while The Good Dinosaur is far more predictable than any film ought to be, that fact doesn’t diminish its emotional punch.
What really sets the film apart, though, is the stunning quality of its visuals. The Good Dinosaur is the most breathtakingly realistic animated film ever made. The animators based the rich and varied scenery on the American Northwest, especially throughout the National Parks system, and the level of detail and the believability of the scenery reflects what was clearly an enormous amount of research. The world feels like one in which you could step through the scene and go hiking, and you can almost feel the wind or rain on your face and smell the trees. We’ve come pretty far with animation, to the point where photorealism and beautiful scenery are expected from every film, but The Good Dinosaur sets the bar even higher. In contrast, the designs of the dinosaurs in the film feel somewhat cartoony, almost like they belong in an Ice Age film, which is a bit jarring when compared with their setting, but I eventually got used to it.
For me, the most compelling aspect of The Good Dinosaur was its decidedly old school feel. It’s very much a Western, though not in the style of either John Wayne or High Noon. It’s more along the lines of those frontier movies, about characters being tested by the elements and finding something inside themselves they didn’t know existed (think Jeremiah Johnson). It’s filled with familiar storytelling elements from cinematic Western history, enhanced by a score by Mychael and Jeff Danna that recalls familiar musical moments to match the scenery. A decade from now, The Good Dinosaur will undoubtedly have paled in comparison to Inside Out, becoming one of the Pixar films that everyone seems to forget when listing off their works (like A Bug’s Life). And while it’s understandable that this simple, classic story will be overshadowed by what is, in fact, a better film from the same studio in the same year, The Good Dinosaur does not deserve to be forgotten. There’s something to be said for simplicity, for being relatable, and for tried-and-true storytelling. The Good Dinosaur may not blow your mind, but that doesn’t mean it won’t touch your heart.