The Good Dinosaur: Pass the Rock, by Matt Warren
What does a low-ambition Pixar movie look like? At first blush, the very idea of such an exotic, unfathomable creature boggles the mind. After all, for two decades the Emeryville Elves have been on the bleeding edge of animated filmmaking—the studio’s technological innovations rivaled only by the sophistication of their storytelling. Pixar is itself not unlike a big green brontosaurus towering over the film landscape, devouring competitors like palm fronds and expelling them as enormous putrescent bales of dino-dung. But what happens when Pixar shrugs its shoulders and goes “eh, good enough”? Well, here comes The Good Dinosaur, plodding towards us with the answer to our question.
Don’t get me wrong. The Good Dinosaur (credited to director Peter Sohn) isn’t bad. It’s pretty good, actually. But coming fast on the heels of Pixar’s heart-obliterating psychological masterpiece Inside Out—the first time the studio has released two films in a single calendar year—The Good Dinosaur’s pleasant-enough mediocrity feels, perhaps disproportionately, like a major step down and/or backwards. It’s sort of like when Prince followed-up Purple Rain with Around the World in a Day. A decent enough album, but c’mon. Where’s “Darling Nikki”?
Here’s the plot. As everyone knows, millions of years ago our human God crashed a meteorite into Earth to kill all the dinosaurs. What The Good Dinosaur presupposes instead is, what if he didn’t? Cue a field of silently grazing dilophosaurus lazily watching as the ersatz molten doombringer sails by harmlessly overhead. Cut to 65 million years later. Modern dinosaurs have developed an agrarian farm society along with the ability to speak American English. At the base of the towering Claw Tooth Mountains, Apatosaurus parents Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Ida (Frances McDormand) hatch a trio of offspring: mischievous sister Libby (Maleah Padilla), rambunctious Buck (Marcus Scribner), and runt Arlo (Raymond Ochoa.) The black sheep of the clan, young Arlo is plagued by fear and self-doubt, relegated to demeaning chores like feeding the clan’s chickens. Not ideal, but as Fred Flintstone’s hemorrhoid donut would say, “it’s a living!”
Things are more or less idyllic until one day when Henry and Arlo chase a corn-thieving “critter”—really a feral human caveboy named “Spot” (voiced by Jack Bright)—into the canyon. The sky darkens and soon the pair is caught in a flash flood. So much for Henry, who’s swept away to his death in a scene arguably too intense for small children, not to mention blatantly reminiscent of The Lion King. Later, Arlo himself falls into the water and is carried down the river far, far away from his Claw Tooth home. Scared, lonely, and ill-equipped for wilderness survival, Arlo must make his way back to the family farm, confronting his fears and summoning inner strength to navigate an episodic series of adventures involving everything from Tyrannosaur cowboys to religious-fanatic Pterodactyls to the accidental consumption of psilocybin mushrooms. Along the way, Arlo eventually adopts and befriends the resourceful, dog-like Spot, who proves an invaluable pet and companion.
The Good Dinosaur is cute and consistently entertaining but its plot, characters, and themes are starkly simplistic, especially compared to legacy Pixar titles like Up and Wall-E. It could be that Good Dino is aimed at a younger demographic than those films, though the movie’s PG rating makes that explanation questionable. In any event, Disney-Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur feels much more “Disney” than “Pixar.” The latter’s hallmark contributions are mostly evident via the film’s jaw-dropping CGI rendering of photo-real natural landscapes—especially in the water scenes. And if Terrence Mallick ever hacks his way into Sohn’s “gently swaying stalks of corn” mainframe, watch out.
The Good Dinosaur is far from peak Pixar, but when you’re used to draining 3-point buckets from downtown, a mere 2-point layup will inevitably seem a bit disappointing, even though it gets the job done just as well. And come to think of it, you know who’d be great at basketball? That’s right: a dinosaur.