For the past couple decades, Pixar has made constantly and somewhat consistently clear that their goal is two-fold: push forward the technical artistry of computer animation and strive to tell meaningful family-friendly stories in relevant, relatable ways. At their best, they tick both boxes with aplomb. At their worst, they still get at least one right. That’s where the company finds itself with The Good Dinosaur, which plods through a flimsy, recycled script that’s clearly not up to par with the majority of their efforts, but manages to provide a visual experience that is practically brain-melting in its implications of how far the pixel-powered medium has come.
One of the first things we see in Pixar’s latest is a rushing river. Computers have been simulating water at the movies for eons, but the water in this particular river is different. It’s completely and utterly photorealistic. If there’s a part of my brain that knows that river is made of pixels and not actual water, then it certainly wasn’t communicating that information to my eyes. To watch that water rush by is to be placed in a paralyzing state of awe. If Pixar can do this, what the hell else can they do that they’re not showing us yet?
Every single environment in The Good Dinosaur ranks among the most eye-poppingly realistic geography ever rendered for an animated movie. Mountains, rivers, trees, and more all look absolutely perfect. In a surprising move, the dinosaur designs go in a different direction. Whereas previous prehistoric-themed animated movies (The Land Before Time, Dinosaur) have usually opted for relatively accurate creature designs, the dinos of Pixar’s creation are actually highly stylized.
Each dinosaur has that amazing Pixar sheen with often greatly exaggerated features, a nice attempt to put a clear and unique stamp on the characters that an otherwise more realistic design may have missed. The contrast between the hyperreal environments and comical creatures makes for a fun and memorable visual experience, an oddball combo that probably wouldn’t work without Pixar’s trademark quality behind it.
If only the script were better, The Good Dinosaur could be something truly special. It certainly doesn’t help that they released this movie in the same calendar year as last summer’s Inside Out, the animation house’s most poignant and brilliant picture to date. Inside Out is a masterpiece, the best thing Pixar’s ever done, whereas this is, narratively speaking, below average by their standards.
There’s a lack of imagination at play here or at least a poor use of imagination that is all the more glaring when you consider the genius on display in Inside Out. The Good Dinosaur opens by setting up a clever what-if scenario where a massive meteor seemingly headed for Mesozoic Era Earth actually bypasses the planet, staving off extinction for the dinosaurs. It’s a great concept that swings the doors of possibility wide open, allowing director Peter Sohn and the army of credited writers (which includes Sohn) to set their dinosaur movie at any point on this new timeline.
So it’s with a significant scratching of my head that I witnessed the story settle into a period that’s still prehistoric, even though millions of years have passed since the prologue. We’re now in the age of Neanderthals, which is obviously a while later than the days dominated by T-Rexes or Triceratops.
But visually and geographically, little has changed, at least not enough to seemingly justify the deployment of the neat what-if concept. The lack of dino extinction amounts to nothing more than a few cavepeople running around and other hairy creatures populating the Earth. At one point, we meet a trio of Tyrannosaurs who are now cattle rustlers, herding some large group of bovine beasts. The nod to westerns gets an additional wink since the patriarch of the group is voiced by Sam Eliott, never far from a cowboy hat himself, but the joke appears to both begin and end there.
The hero of the story is an Apatosaurus named Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), the runt of a litter that includes a productive brother and sister who quickly learn to contribute on their parent's farm. So yeah, that's as weird as it sounds, with the dinos living in a hut and spending their days tending to their crops. It's a wacky idea that could be seen as charming in some ways, but it's mostly as random as it is unfunny. Of course, Arlo being the runt means that he's a pathetic coward and The Good Dinosaur makes clear from the start that his arc is going to be mapped on oft-tread territory.
After a strangely blatant homage to The Lion King, Arlo is separated from his family and must make the long journey home, discovering courage along the way, of course. He also befriends a little Neanderthal boy who becomes, for lack of a better word, his pet. It's for this reason that apparently the whole non-extinct dinosaurs angle has been introduced. The Good Dinosaur's cute twist is that it's a tale of a boy and his dog, except the boy is the dog. Arlo even names him Spot, which is indeed pretty adorable.
There are some sweet moments between Arlo and Spot, even a few that border on lightly moving, so it's all a fair reminder that even problematic Pixar is more emotionally well-rounded and satisfying than what most of the Hollywood competition has to offer on a good day. There's also some dark humour here that's a bit welcome as a quick jolt, but for the most part, Arlo's story seems far too familiar even when packaged with the trademark Pixar polish.
It sure is an astonishing sight to behold, though. Even if this is one of Pixar's weakest movies, it's entirely worth seeing simply for the animated environments. I cannot stress enough how accomplished the visuals are. To think that computer animation has grown this much in the twenty years since Toy Story is staggering. The Good Dinosaur quite simply features some of the most complex animation I've ever seen burst forth from a computer.
With a much better, more imaginative script, this could have been gold, but as it stands, it's more pyrite than anything else. But what a shine it has, practically blinding in its technical brilliance as it plants thoughts of where else Pixar can take their envelope-pushing ambitions. Prehistoric landscapes have never looked so cinematically rich, though if dinosaurs actually really did avoid extinction, surely they'd have better stories to share.