After a few rough years that saw the release of some of Pixar’s weakest efforts, 2015 got the revered animation studio back on track with the release of Inside Out, Pixar’s most profound and imaginative film to date. 2015 also marks the first time that Pixar has released two feature films in the same calendar year, as Inside Out is followed up by The Good Dinosaur. But does The Good Dinosaur continue Pixar’s regained momentum, or was Inside Out a standalone return to form?
The Good Dinosaur has a simple enough premise. What if the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs missed Earth? The opening scene depicts the asteroid humorously skipping the planet as dinosaurs look on like a crowd watching a shooting star.
Fast forward a few million years, and the dinosaurs now take on more caricatured character designs and more human attributes. Among these dinosaurs is a family of Apatosaurus: the father Henry, the mother Ida, and their three children, Libby, Buck and Arlo.
Arlo is the runt, considerably smaller, and far more fearful than the rest of his family. Arlo has a difficult time doing even some of his simpler farming and chores. But Arlo is determined to earn his place, and his father gives him the chance by guarding the family’s silo, where they store their food for the Winter.
The silo and its food have been the target of a recurring pest, and if Arlo can get rid of said pest, he will earn his print on the silo alongside the rest of the family. As it turns out, the pest is a feral caveboy. Arlo is quick to sympathize with the boy, and sets him free after initially trapping him. When Arlo’s father grows upset with his son, he drags Arlo on a mission to track the caveboy, but along the way a flash flood occurs. Though Henry manages to save Arlo, he ultimately loses his own life in the flood.
Some time later, Arlo’s fears have been intensified by the loss of his father. When the caveboy comes back to cause more mischief, the grief-ridden Arlo gives chase, but accidentally stumbles into a river, which sweeps him far away from his home. This leads to an adventure for Arlo to find his way back home. But more importantly, it begins a friendship between Arlo and the caveboy, whom Arlo names Spot.
If that summary seems to cover a lot of familiar animated territory, that’s probably because it does. The Good Dinosaur, while charming, is an incredibly safe movie. This is especially true when you consider this is a Pixar movie, and all the more magnified by the fact that it followed the wildly original and inventive Inside Out by mere months.
It’s not that what The Good Dinosaur has to offer is bad. In fact, compared to a lot of animation today it’s solidly good. But it’s terribly predictable and by-the-books. The story can often feel like its leaving checkmarks as it covers many animated tropes. Despite the many cliches, The Good Dinosaur features two aspects that help keep it afloat.
The first of these aspects are the characters. Though it’s far from Pixar’s most fleshed-out cast, The Good Dinosaur features a number of characters who Arlo and Spot come across during their adventure that leave their mark. From a cowboy tyrannosaurus, a group of pterodactyl zealots, and a superstitious styracosaurus, the film frequently introduces new characters for Arlo and Spot to interact with. It’s a colorful parade of characters, and at the heart of it all are Arlo and Spot. Arlo is a character kids can easily identify with, while Spot, who acts like a dog and only speaks in grunts and howls, is a scene-stealer. And the relationship between the two is heartwarming.
The other standout aspect is the animation itself. The characters continue Pixar’s preference for exaggerated and cartoony character designs, and it’s all the more charming for it. But the film’s scenery and locations are built on a greater sense of realism than Pixar has ever attempted. You wouldn’t be faulted for thinking Pixar simply placed their animated characters in live-action settings. The environments look that real. The water effects in particular being the most realistic I’ve seen in animation.
Visually speaking, The Good Dinosaur is a beautiful film. And character-wise, it’s charming and sweet. Children will probably love it. But audiences who are old enough to remember all the animated films it borrows narrative elements from may feel like it’s simply treading familiar ground. Perhaps the film’s troubled production meant that Pixar needed to salvage the it quickly, and fell back on familiar tropes to finish the film on time.
Whatever the reason, The Good Dinosaur, despite its merits, is one of the weaker films in the Pixar canon. On the bright side, Pixar’s stellar track record means that even most of their lesser films are enjoyable, and The Good Dinosaur is no different. On the downside, Pixar’s return to their former glory may have been a one-time deal with Inside Out, and releasing The Good Dinosaur relatively soon after Inside Out only makes The Good Dinosaur’s shortcomings all the more apparent.
The Good Dinosaur falls back into lesser Pixar territory. For younger audiences, it may be fun while it lasts. For everyone else, it feels like treading all too familiar ground, with little to make up for it.