One Pixar film a year almost always feels like a treat. Two films in one year (actually less than six months) feels unearned largesse, but that’s assuming the second film, in this case The Good Dinosaur, matches the first, Inside Out, in the depth and breadth of its storytelling, of its emotional resonance, and visual and verbal wit. Unfortunately, that assumption would be wrong were The Good Dinosaur, a long-delayed, shockingly short-on-imagination animated film stitched together through several, ill-fitting conceits, beginning with the asteroid credited with the extinction of dinosaurs as recently as 65 million years ago. In The Good Dinosaur, the asteroid comes closes, but misses, burning out as it hits the earth’s atmosphere, saving the dinosaurs and, in turn, relegating the descendants of small rodent-sized mammals to never-was, supporting status. It’s clever, certainly, but what The Good Dinosaur does with that conceit isn’t clever at all. It’s often plodding, dull, and uninventive, dolling out child-oriented life lessons minus the subtlety and nuance typical of Pixar’s significantly better, previous efforts.
When we meet the central character, Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), he’s a newly hatched apatosaur, the smallest of three hatchlings, but no less loved by his farmer parents, Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Ida (Frances McDormand), His two average-sized siblings, Libby (Maleah Padilla) and Buck (Marcus Scribner), share few, if any, of Arlo’s anxieties or fears. In the post-asteroid past, dinosaurs have not only developed language, but also culture and the rudiments of civilization, cultivating the land and growing food, a not easy task given the absence of opposable thumbs, a key evolutionary contributor to the advance of mammals, specifically proto-humans to alpha species status, but that’s probably overthinking The Good Dinosaur. After all, Pixar gave us Cars and Cars 2, an odd, discomforting future or alternate present where sentient automobiles have removed humans entirely from the equation. In The Good Dinosaur, cities may or may not exist, but we never see them or hear any of the characters mention them. For them, the land, sitting in a stunningly realized, photorealistic valley, is their entire world and for Arlo proving himself to his parents, especially his father, is all that matters. But when tragedy in the form of a flash flood strikes – a shameless lift from Disney’s The Lion King – Arlo, fearful, insecure, and alone, must find his way back to his now distant family.
It’s a simple, straightforward story, probably Pixar’s simplest, most straightforward story with Arlo’s arc from frightened child (he’s at most a preteen) to confident, risk-taking almost adult just as predictable as this description implies. Arlo’s not alone on his Homeward Bound-inspired journey. He acquires a pet of sorts, a feral human child who grunts and crawls on all fours. Arlo bestows the name “Spot” on his new pet/best friend, but that’s only after Arlo gets over his resentment toward Spot (he blames Spot for his predicament) and Spot proves to be resourceful, finding food for Arlo and helping to extricate Arlo from all manner of traps and obstacles, including The Good Dinosaur’s central villains, a flock of ravenous pterodactyls guided by primitive, near mystical beliefs in the storms that carry them from one hunting ground to another (their dietary preferences are decidedly non-vegetarian like Arlo and his family). Arlo meets up with a T-Rex clan, but they’re predators in the classic sense; they’re cattle ranchers or the equivalent thereof in The Good Dinosaur.
Despite the presence of talking dinosaurs and the journey home plot, The Good Dinosaur isn’t much more than a gloss on overly familiar Western tropes, from the family homestead, the traditional family (and farming) as the bedrock of American values, cattle drives and cattle rustlers, and a boy’s own adventure centered around personal growth and maturity. Add to that a platonic love story, an interspecies bromance if you prefer, between Arlo and Spot (a boy and his dog), and genre conventions are out in full, unmitigated force. Not that there’s anything wrong with revisiting a relatively fallow, seldom-used genre, but that genre has become fallow and seldom used for a reason: tropes stagnated through almost constant, unceasing repetition (as many as 10,000 Westerns were made by Hollywood in the the last century), while moviegoers gravitated toward other, more personally and culturally relevant genres, like city-set crime films, war films (for a time, anyway), and more recently science fiction/fantasy, and comic-book superhero adaptations.
Visually, of course, The Good Dinosaur doesn’t disappoint. Every image, every scene, and every sequence has been carefully created and crafted to generate maximum wonder and awe from audiences, but the decision to jam cartoon-inspired creature designs (every dinosaur) with unstylized, photorealistic backgrounds makes for a jarring, ill fit. The dinosaurs often look and feel pasted in to backgrounds rather than a natural part or extension of those backgrounds. It doesn’t help that some of those backgrounds look so much like the real world (they’re not as the prominent credit for “Volumetric Clouds” attests) that it raises an important, presumably unanswered question: Why use computer animation at all for the backgrounds? The answer must have satisfied Pixar’s braintrust otherwise The Good Dinosaur wouldn’t have seen the light of day, but maybe that would have been for the best.