The Good Dinosaur (2015)
Written by Bob Peterson, Kelsey Mann, Meg LeFauve.
Starring Raymond Ochoa, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Sam Elliott.
Coming out less than five months after Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur falls into the category of minor Pixar features occupied by Cars and A Bug’s Life. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing since this effort demonstrates that the studio can also produce stories that aren’t hippy dippy psychological dramas aimed at adults. TGD possesses Pixar’s most gorgeous visuals to date, all in the service of weaving an old-fashioned coming-of-age tale designed to encourage kids to cultivate traditional values such as courage, self-reliance, or honoring the overriding importance of the nuclear family.
“Traditional” is currently a loaded word in America’s polarized political climate. Creationist/intelligent design advocates are certain to object to TGD’s pro-evolutionary stance. But the idea of an alternate timeline where dinosaurs have achieved sentience or coexist with humans is already a hoary Hollywood trope. The brightly colored, rounded geometrical designs of the dinosaurs would not look out of place in an older line-drawn or stop animation milieu. They sharply contrast with the most well-realized natural environments ever created for a Pixar feature film. The photorealism of the setting is staggering in its level of detail, especially the varied depictions of flowing water. And the expansive topography is meant to evoke the atmosphere of America’s Old West, but with dinosaurs instead of humans playing the role of homesteaders and cowboys. The humans are actually the wolves and coyotes of this imaginary world.
The ability to fabricate such carefully crafted allusions to touchstones like dinosaur/caveman stories and classic movie westerns is par for the course for the studio. Pixar has always been much more clever when it comes to integrating its popular culture references into the meat of the plot, in contrast to the more superficial humor often employed by its competitors. The reversal of humans and dinosaurs aside, Pixar doesn’t actually do anything subversive with its sources. They’re mainly mined for their sentimental value. What kid isn’t crazy about large prehistoric beasts, and what American child hasn't been inculcated to concede to the romantic allure of the Old West? A lot of the film is taken up in admiring the breathtaking vistas made possible by Pixar's talented animators and industrial-strength render farms, usually accompanied by an appropriate western-style musical soundtrack.
Not that the world-building makes any more sense than that of Cars. The film might have theropod cowboys engaged in an old-fashioned cattle drive, but there’s no context to explain its larger social significance. Sauropod dinosaurs might practice homestead farming, but there’s no reason given why that’s a better option than more primitive hunter-gathering methods. There's no evidence of the existence of towns or villages (unlike the upcoming Zootopia). Dinosaur civilization hasn’t advanced beyond stone-age technology, and even that’s made a little confusing because of their lack of opposable thumbs. As for the creatures that actually possess those attributes, it’s not clear how intelligent or how large the human population is, though they’re the only characters who wear any type of clothing. It’s best not to think about it, as the setting mainly exists to serve the story of an insecure young sauropod named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) who becomes separated from his family after a series of unfortunate events. He finds his way home with the help of a feral boy he eventually names Spot (Jack Bright).
These two are the most prominent juvenile characters found within a Pixar story, as there are no grown-ups to share center stage with them. They come and go to either hinder or help in Arlo’s quest. The film’s episodic structure involves the two children stumbling from one dangerous situation to the next. And this starts to get repetitive after the halfway point. But the heart of the story is the developing friendship between the gangly and easily frightened Arlo, and the small but ferocious Spot as they manage to get past their interspecies-fueled distrust and forge a familial bond. It’s not particularly complicated or original for a Pixar film. So the adult fanbase might find the slow pace, simple characterizations, and dearth of witty dialogue disappointing. But the kids will have someone to relate to with Arlo. And there's that magnificent prehistoric landscape to take in.