In a year already graced by a unique, fascinating return to form for Pixar in Inside Out, it’s easy to dismiss The Good Dinosaur as an also-ran. At first glance, the film looks more like a Dreamworks picture – a brontosaurus with big Disney eyes and a cutesy cave-boy riding on its back, most likely in a simplistic tale containing winsome homilies about finding yourself and the importance of family and friends. While most of that sentence is technically true, The Good Dinosaur has the good fortune of taking those straightforward elements and implementing them in the most elegant, effective way possible, elevating a simple story to absolute artistry.
The Good Dinosaur already had a rough road ahead of it; having been almost completely retooled in 2013 with a new director (Peter Sohn), new cast (only Frances McDormand remains from the original voice cast), and new story, it’s tempting to wonder what might have been. Instead of the original tale, which was essentially Billy Elliot with dinosaurs, The Good Dinosaur presents an alternate timeline in which dinosaurs weren’t exterminated by a large asteroid 65 million years ago. Instead, dinosaurs evolved to the point where they could speak, become self-aware, and develop a basic agrarian society. The film focuses on one family of Apatosaurs, particularly their youngest child – the gangly, awkward Arlo (Brandon Ochoa). Upset that he hasn’t proven himself among his stronger, more resourceful family members on the farm, circumstances force him to find his way back home across the treacherous plains of un-developed Earth, with the help of a feral caveboy named Spot (Jack Bright).
The dynamic between the untested, terrified Arlo and the adorably savage Spot is very “boy and his dog” (come on, his name is Spot!), but there are some fantastic moments to be found. The animators never shy away from the awkward limitations of Arlo’s dinosaur frame, while Spot’s manic, limber energy allows him to dance and dart around the slow, shaky dinosaur. One particularly effective scene, in which the two characters must convey the concept of ‘family’ using nothing more than movement and gestures due to the language barrier, is incredibly touching. It’s these little moments of artful tenderness that help to elevate the battle-against-nature story The Good Dinosaur is somewhat saddled with. (Mychael and Jeff Danna’s score does much of the emotional heavy lifting, to be sure, but what’s a Pixar movie without effectively maudlin orchestration?)
There’s nothing unpredictable or surprising about The Good Dinosaur. There’s an inciting incident that distinctly recalls The Lion King, and it also shares Inside Out’s basic structure of “two disparate personalities are thrown far from home, and must forge a friendship in order to survive the trip back.” However, The Good Dinosaur excels in its transcendent, gorgeous visuals and the effectiveness of its storytelling. Sohn’s direction is assured and graceful, while young Brandon Ochoa’s heart-rending performance hammers home a very relatable fear and loneliness.
Pixar’s long been one of the pioneers of computer animation, and The Good Dinosaur is no exception. If nothing else, it’s a great landscape movie, with some of the grandest shots of plains, deserts and forests you’ll see outside of nature documentaries. It may seem silly on paper to become enraptured in the flow of stellar CGI water, but Arlo’s environment is eye-catching and arresting. The same can’t really be said of the character animation, which admittedly conflicts at times with the photorealism of the environments; however, the animation still shows a great deal of expressiveness in its characters, with every eye movement, gesture, and flared nostril conveying volumes of pathos.
The Good Dinosaur is one of Pixar’s most gorgeous films to date, and it’s an awe-inspiring achievement in the increasing spectacle and photorealism of computer animation. While the story is grounded in a simple coming-of-age tale with its fair share of wacky asides, its lack of complexity should not be confused with ineffectuality. Sure, it doesn’t tell a story we haven’t seen before, but it tells it so artfully that it’s hard to care too much.
(Oh, and don’t forget to watch the Pixar short that precedes the film – “Sanjay’s Super Team.” It’s a beautiful, sensitive work that has the added benefit of injecting a shot of diversity into a genre where the talking animals often outnumber people of color.)