The Good Dinosaur has had a rough time on its way to the cinema. The film was supposed to come out in 2014 but, much like Toy Story 2 and Brave before it, the entire film was scrapped close to completion and begun over again due to it not meeting Pixar’s high standards (doesn’t exactly explain how Cars 2 got a pass, but now I’m just being mean). Watching the final film, there are definitely still signs that The Good Dinosaur was a problem child but within the somewhat messy final result are moments that truly shine.
The story of The Good Dinosaur is pretty simple even for a kids’ film. It’s your standard underdog tale of a kid going on an adventure to reunite with his family whilst overcoming his fears and making new friends; if you grew up on animated films, you’ve seen at least one with this exact plot.
The film is incredibly formulaic and predictable, especially in the first act, with little to no deviation from the expected path. The film is also structurally wonky, with the second act being our heroes basically just meandering between different kooky side characters on their way to the actual plot. Where the film does show a unique identity is in its world and character dynamics.
The story is set on an Earth where dinosaurs weren’t killed by the asteroid, now co-existing with the emerging human population, and it’s all handled with surprising maturity. Though the dinosaurs talk and certain species embody different human roles like farmers, cowboys, hillbillies and even cultists, they are still animals and behave as such.
Apatosaurus protagonist Arlo and his human companion Spot are a fun twist on the usual ‘a boy and his dog’ dynamic, and it’s their heartfelt relationship that keeps the film moving forward and ultimately sells the story. A scene where the pair explain their back stories to each other with almost no dialogue is incredibly emotional, and the resolution to their friendship is equally as impactful. It’s a pity there aren’t as many scenes as good as those throughout the rest of the picture.
Compared to many of the great protagonists of Pixar’s past, Arlo really fails to stand out. Other than the typical underdog traits of being frail and easily scared, he lacks a distinctive personality that makes him more than just a cliché. Most characters of this ilk have at least some personal dream or special skill that raises them above mediocrity, but Arlo doesn’t have anything like that. It’s this blandness that makes the story’s first act feel especially dull, and it’s not until the relationship between him and Spot really starts to form that the film starts to feel like something more.
Spot as a character is enjoyable to watch purely from an animation perspective, which is important as he has no dialogue beyond grunts, and through simple facial expression and body language he gets across far more character depth than Arlo can through actual words. The two make an enjoyable duo and their bond feels airtight by the film’s conclusion, but without Spot the narrative’s mediocrity would be even more abundant.
The rest of the supporting characters are mostly just window dressing though strong vocal talent backs many of them up. Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand feel under-utilised as Arlo’s parents, as well as his siblings who are basically just being there to hammer home Arlo’s weaknesses, whilst Steve Zahn’s villainous pterodactyl Thunderclap feels like an afterthought.
Sam Elliot, Anna Paquin and A.J. Buckley are fun as a family of T-Rexes, though other than Elliot helping to drive home the film’s message about overcoming fear their subplot is completely superfluous. Director Peter Sohn completely steals the screen as the bizarrely hilarious Forrest Woodbush, but again his scene is mainly just there to be funny.
Though the story is lacking, on a visual level The Good Dinosaur is a feast for the eyes. The detailing in the environments is breathtaking, bordering on photorealistic at points, and though the more cartoony designs of the dinosaurs sometimes clash with these gorgeous vistas it remains a fantastically enjoyable experience to behold. The quality of the animation is also vivid, with Arlo’s gangly movements bouncing well off of Spot’s speedy reactions, and elements like rain and snow add to the tangibility of this world.
The film’s score by Mychael Danna & Jeff Danna is a change of pace from Pixar’s usual use of either Michael Giacchino or Randy Newman, but it’s a welcome change as their gentle and airy sensibilities feel like a much better fit for the film compared to a more traditionally uplifting Disney score.
The Good Dinosaur ranks amongst Pixar’s lesser efforts but it’s still an enjoyable experience despite the familiarity. Much like Brave, it’s impressive that they’ve managed to make a workable film out of a troubled production, but in saving it they have relied heavily on formula. If you can get beyond the story’s triteness there are some funny and beautiful moments to behold that rank amongst the company’s most heartfelt scenes, but they do feel caked within a template that’s felt tired since the turn of the millennium.
After a film like Inside Out that appealed so perfectly to both kids and adults and got across far deeper messages, it’s a little underwhelming to see The Good Dinosaur focus more on the younger demographic (then again, how many other Pixar films can claim to have a drug trip scene?), and I hope in their future efforts they continue striving to defy expectations rather than settle for simply fine.