Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur isn't very good. It's OK. Fine, even. But by Pixar’s standards, it’s actually a disappointment – especially when compared with Inside Out, the emotionally potent, intellectual and vibrant movie the animation studio released in theaters mere months ago. That’s the blessing and the curse of Pixar. The bar has been raised so high over the years that when a new story misses the mark, we notice. The bigger issue has become that, from Cars 2 to Brave, we are noticing more often that we initially did with Pixar. Was the decline in quality inevitable?
If you followed the progress of Peter Sohn’s The Good Dinosaur with any real interest, you may know that the story went through major overhauls during its production. For starters, this wasn’t supposed to be Peter Sohn’s Good Dinosaur in the first place. Pixar veteran Bob Peterson (Up) had an idea for a dinosaur movie that dated back to 2012 (at least), imagining a world where the asteroid that hit our planet – leading to the extinction of the mighty dinosaurs – missed. In August 2013, though, Peterson was removed from the project, and Sohn – a co-director at the time – took over. Reports said the story was retooled. A new cast was brought in. The movie was delayed, in hopes of repairing what had begun.
None of this would matter if the film reaching theaters worked, if the behind-the-scenes maneuverings led to the creation of a fantastic feature. They didn’t, and you can actually point to the production’s various conflicts for the reasons that The Good Dinosaur ultimately deflates… or, better yet, never comes together as a movie that engages its audience, or advances beyond its overly simplified concept. If Pixar delayed The Good Dinosaur to improve the movie’s story, where are those improvements? I didn’t see them.
As was initially reported, we start on a version of our planet where the legendary asteroid missed Earth, meaning the dinosaurs that roamed our rock’s surface continued to roam. This could have set up a world where countless creative species of colorful animated dinosaurs factored in to the plot, but Good Dinosaur does little to play with that fun premise, instead focusing on one tight-knit clan of Apatosaurus farmers, led by Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Ida (Frances McDormand). The duo have three children, all very different in personality, and the parents drive home an important message: “You have to earn your mark by doing something big.” Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), the runt of the pack, desperately wants to impress his father, and he gets the chance while on an expedition to find the “critter” who is eating their supplies. Only – because this is a Disney movie – tragedy strikes and Henry is killed… and Arlo now must find his way home before his family gets to worried.
And then? Well, no “and then.” That’s pretty much it. Arlo is separated from his family, carried away from the farm by a powerful river current. By the time he reaches dry land, he’s miles from home, so he starts walking back. He’s accompanied by the “critter,” a human cave-boy who doesn’t speak, and whom Arlo blames for the loss of his father. Together, they form the archetypal odd couple, bickering at first before eventually bonding after a series of episodic conflicts that come across as story patches meant to punch up the placcid Good Dinosaur, whether they fit the narrative or not.
Take, for example, a long sequence where Arlo and Spot (the name he gives the cave boy) encounter three T-Rex who, for reasons never given, behave like cattle-rustling cowboys. The humor in the detour is scattershot and sometimes grisly, as when the lead dino (voiced by Sam Elliott) relays a story about the time he killed a crocodile and “drowned him in my own blood.” Really, Pixar? Other random scenes come and go with no real connection to the main plot, like the time Arlo and Spot get into some wild berries and start hallucinating. Yes, The Good Dinosaur has a drug montage. Bring the kids!
I will say that the animation in The Good Dinosaur is stunningly beautiful. The nature shots are photo-realistic, and even Arlo – with his bulbous shape and shiny gloss – looks like a toy that has just been removed from its packaging. This easily is some of the best animation in Pixar’s oeuvre. And yet, the story is so basic, so immature, and so disjointed that the visuals are in service of a dud of a plot. It’s the equivalent of having an ornate table setting, then serving your dinner guests a grilled cheese sandwich.