Before it was even released, The Good Dinosaur was already at a major disadvantage. The film’s well publicized production troubles already made some Pixar fans understandably skeptical (myself included) and it was also forced to follow Inside Out, arguably the studio’s greatest film to date, while it’s still fresh on the audience’s minds. Thankfully, while The Good Dinosaur is far from the best Pixar has to offer, it’s also able to avoid being a Cars 2 level disaster.
Now, production troubles aren’t anything new for Pixar but The Good Dinosaur took things to a new level. For starters, back in 2013, Pixar feeling unsatisfied with the direction of the story, fired director Bob Peterson (Up) with just nine months until the film’s intended release date, leaving the studio with no choice but to delay the film for almost a year and a half and to also lay off several dozen employees (and in case you were wondering this is also why we had no Pixar movies last year). Then to top it all off, last summer the studio opted to replace almost it’s entire voice cast at the last minute for various reasons, leaving Frances McDormand as the only original cast member to remain a part of the film. With all of that working against The Good Dinosaur, it’s no surprise that the story feels a little off.
The Good Dinosaur takes place in an alternate timeline where the dinosaurs were never killed by an asteroid and are instead allowed to evolve along with the humans. With that premise set in place, we follow a family of Apatosaurus farmers, Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Ida (Frances McDormand) and their children Buck, Libby and runt Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), the film’s protagonist. Arlo struggles to adjust to life as a farmer due to his small size and timid nature, much to his father’s chagrin. Things become worse for Arlo when he’s unable to kill a caveboy (later named Spot) that’s been stealing food out of their silo and his father is killed in a flash flood trying to track it. A short time later, Arlo finds Spot again and chases after him but gets swept away by a river in the process and must make the harrowing trip back home with some help from Spot and they of course form an unlikely friendship.
If all these plot elements sound eerily familiar to you, you’re not alone. The journey home story has been done to death including by Pixar several times with the most recent example being Inside Out (yet another thing that dooms this movie to forever being unfairly compared to Inside Out). The unlikely friendship angle has also been a frequent trope used by Pixar since the studio’s inception but the bond between Arlo and Spot isn’t handled nearly as well as Woody and Buzz, Carl and Russell, WALL-E and EVE or even Sully and Mike in Monsters University. The less I say about the whole dead parent motivation the better.
The element of this story I find most annoying though is Mother Nature, who while not an actual character is closest thing this picture gets to an actual villain. I understand what Pixar was going for here. They wanted to show how cruel, dangerous and unpredictable the elements can be and also have a way that forces Arlo to confront his fears head on. This is a decent enough idea in theory but it’s not executed very well. Nature seems to be legitimately out to get Arlo since anytime it looks like he’s about to make it home, nature shows up to make things harder on him. This might not have been so annoying except instead of having Arlo really do anything to face his fears, he usually passes out and only regains consciousness once the threat is over.
Despite all the gripes I’m making, this still isn’t a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, by Illumination, Blue Sky or even Dreamworks standards, this would probably be considered above average. Since this is a Pixar release though, it’s likely destined to stand alongside Cars and Brave as one of the studio’s more mediocre efforts. On the plus side, the animation is absolutely gorgeous. Even when Pixar’s stories haven’t been entirely up to par, they have always proven to be miles ahead of the competition in terms of the actual animation and this was no exception. Just like with Brave, the movie’s setting lends itself to some beautiful scenery and gives the animators a real chance to shine and in that area The Good Dinosaur does not disappoint.
I was admittedly disappointed with the finished product of The Good Dinosaur but it would be unfair to simply dismiss it as just another kid’s movie. There’s nothing especially bad about this movie but being a Pixar movie carries the burden that audiences expect more from them. While certainly not the greatest film Pixar has to offer, it’s still good enough for the adults to at least be mildly entertained alongside their kids.