65 million years ago an enormous asteroid headed toward Earth, readying to end the Cretaceous period … but it missed. Millions of years later, a family of Apatosauruses harvest crops from their cornfield in preparation for the coming winter. Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand) teach their children Buck (Marcus Scribner), Libby (Maleah Padilla), and Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) how to run the farm, but timid, panicky Arlo never quite manages to muster the courage necessary to finish his chores. When tragedy strikes the dinosaur clan, and Arlo is stranded in a perilous and faraway land, he must befriend an unlikely ally (a feral human child called Spot) to brave unimaginable dangers in his quest to return home.
It’s immediately evident that the computer-animated environments (with water, rain, clouds, etc.) and backgrounds are stunningly authentic. The photorealism is essentially indistinguishable from actual outdoor locations, which begs the question as to why these components were animated at all. But in the middle of this visual splendor are incredibly cartoonish dinosaur designs – even though they possess completely convincing textures and skin/muscle movement. It’s a strange contrast to put bouncy, goofy, big-eyed creatures into this backdrop of total reality (especially since this version of Earth doesn’t betray its 65 million year-old time period), but it arguably matches the second tremendous contrast: human dinosaurs.
One of the most inventive aspects of “The Good Dinosaur” is the role reversal – a key piece to prior pictures like “Ratatouille,” “Toy Story,” and “WALL-E.” Here, the dinosaurs are the humans and the humans are animals (or pets, as Spot’s behavior mimics a domesticated dog to a tee). Taking this bizarre twist on anthropomorphization to whole new levels, the dinosaurs don’t just exhibit facial expressions and speech, but they also engage in the activities that people would have accomplished (if evolution had proceeded unchanged by an unexpectedly veering asteroid), such as building a house, plowing land, and erecting a corn silo for storage. Curiously, farm animals constitute the lower life forms, along with various insects and pests.
Despite a brilliant setup populated with extraordinary inhabitants (many of which probably shouldn’t belong in a Pixar film), “The Good Dinosaur” struggles to focus on an original story, falling back on individual, creative elements to distract viewers from its strict adherence to familiar territory. It can’t just be a slight twist on “The Incredible Journey” (or “Homeward Bound” or “101 Dalmatians”) with the routine themes of earning stripes, conquering fears, and coping with premature loss. In failing to transcend such basic motifs (many borrowed liberally from other Disney projects like “Bambi,” “Pinocchio,” and “The Lion King”), this coming-of-age yarn feels uninspired and flat. Even a few emotional moments are unable to evoke the standard Pixar tear-shedding.
Though the dinosaurs are essentially interacting in a Western setting (a T-Rex family herds longhorns and treat their own bodies as if they were astride a horse, perhaps like a centaur, while they defend against velociraptor rustlers), the comic misadventures are rarely unpredictable. There simply aren’t enough fresh ideas to warrant a feature-length production. It’s doubly disappointing that Arlo is the least amusing of the various dino personalities, regularly appearing as downright pathetic; when he’s eventually redeemed, it’s wholly implausible. It’s also a bad sign that select bit parts (like fed-up gophers, a styracosaurus meditator, and fanatical pterodactyls) are more memorable than the lead character.