The Good Dinosaur has as its premise two witty reversals of the kind Pixar has become known for: What if the asteroid that allegedly hit the Earth 65 million years ago and killed off the dinosaurs missed our planet; and what if, millions of years after that near-miss, the still-extant dinosaurs had become civilized, and the humans were the wild animals that had to be domesticated? The resulting film is amiable, pretty, and charming in all the right ways — even if it ultimately settles for a fairly typical tale of a late bloomer finding his way.
The protagonist here is Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), an apatosaurus born to a pair of hard-working farmer dinosaurs on the heels of his burly brother, Buck, and sharp-witted sister, Libby. Arlo’s egg is big but he is small, which speaks to the dashed expectations of his family; he stumbles when he walks, and is mortified of the world outside the farm. While his siblings quickly come into their own as brave and hardworking young dinos, Arlo is half-formed, always meaning well but lacking follow-through. One day, tasked with trapping and killing a “critter” that’s been eating away at the family’s corn harvest, Arlo finds a small human boy — wild and dangerous despite his big green eyes, button nose, and freckly cheeks — inside the trap, and is unable to finish him off. When he and Dad try to chase down the kid, a sudden storm and flood sweep the father away to his death.
Later, Arlo himself gets swept away and winds up miles from home. He and the boy, soon dubbed “Spot,” slowly come to a silent understanding of one another. Both have lost parents, both are far from home, and each desperately needs the other to survive. Their journey is episodic and engaging, alternating between moments of irreverent humor and nightmarish but kid-friendly horror. The best bit involves a Styracosaurus who hosts various cuddly but aggressively named animals among his elaborate horns. (“This is Fury, he protects me from the creatures that crawl in the night. This is Destructor, she protects me from mosquitoes. This is Dream Crusher, he protects me from having unrealistic goals.”) At another point, Spot and Arlo help out a family of cowboylike T.rexes (whose patriarch is voiced by eternal cowboy Sam Elliott) as they round up a herd of longhorn buffalo.
The real attraction here is the gorgeously animated scenery – realistic, majestic mountain views and forests and prairies and hot springs and salt deposits, all evocative of a time when the world was new. In that sense, The Good Dinosaur makes for an interesting contrast with this year’s other Pixar release. Inside/Out was a carnival of sci-fi and fantasy influences, in the service of a thoroughly internalized story. It immersed us in a world where emotions became tactile. The Good Dinosaur immerses us in one where a primordial vision of nature becomes tactile. That both were created inside computers is mind-blowing.
However, the story in The Good Dinosaur never quite builds up the narrative head of steam one might expect from Pixar. Characters and episodes show up and are then dropped, with little of the interlocking sense of purpose one finds in similar survival-and-return films like Finding Nemo, or even Inside/Out (where every new interaction revealed something new about how the mind functioned). Still, something tells me kids won’t care about that level of intricacy and involvement. From where they’re sitting, The Good Dinosaur will look like a fun, adorable, exciting movie with likable heroes that they’ll want to see over and over again. They’re not wrong.