Pixar has been so consistently great, churning out one classic after another for so long, that the rare missteps are conflated. The vaunted animation studio has had very public issues developing “The Good Dinosaur”; struggling to crack the prehistoric tale’s storyline and firing director Bob Peterson when they couldn’t figure it out. Even with veteran animation Peter Sohn and a Pixar brain trust coming aboard, the film still feels incomplete and devoid of the depth we’re accustomed to from them.
“The Good Dinosaur” is basically “Ice Age”, only a lot more violent and scary. We’re accustomed to Pixar movies having mature themes that adults can appreciate and kids can grow into, but that’s not what this is. It’s tonally all over the map and more bizarre than endearing, and features one of Pixar’s weakest lead characters in Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), the runt in an Apatosaurus family.
The film begins promisingly as the giant asteroid that supposedly killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago misses the mark. That means the dinosaurs stuck around and have evolved enough to talk and form their own little civilizations. Arlo comes from a farming family, complete with a chicken coop and everything. Arlo’s a wuss; he’s scared of literally everything, including the chickens. That makes it hard for him to relate with his family, led by the stoic Poppa Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand), who just want their children to make their mark in the world. Literally. They want them to make a print in the mud and “mark” it on their food silo, but not until they’ve made some kind of achievement. Everyone makes their mark but Arlo who is so timid he’s a frustration to the family. Audiences may not like him, either.
Perhaps it was Pixar’s struggles figuring out an approach, but “The Good Dinosaur” leans heavily on its influences. One of those, clearly, was “The Lion King”. When a Mufasa-esque catastrophe befalls the family, Arlo gets swept away by a flood (of which there seem to be daily occurrences) while chasing after the feral cave-boy, Spot (Jack Bright). Arlo blames Spot for everything that has gone wrong, but once lost must rely on him to return home. For Arlo, being stuck in the Darwinian wilds where snakes, killer Pterodactyls, and velociraptors roam is like a Hellish nightmare. Good thing he has Spot, who basically acts like man’s best friend…or dinosaur’s best friend, to fight his battles for him, mostly through biting anything that moves. Of course, if Arlo is going to get home he’ll need to put his fears aside and learn to survive in the dangerous world.
For all of “The Good Dinosaur”‘s problems, visuals aren’t one of them. This might be Pixar’s most beautiful film yet, featuring colorful images that are stunning and photo-realistic. It’s so gorgeous they practically burst from the screen, and looks best when capturing some of the most terrifying moments such as raging flood waters and looming thunderstorms over the hillside. But the story is a mess that takes some truly odd turns. A berry feast turns into a psychedelic high that would put Seth Rogen and James Franco to shame. An encounter with a trio of Tyrannosaurs (including one with Sam Elliott’s booming cowboy voice) takes the film on a Western course, and even has Arlo wrangling water buffaloes. Where the film works is in the growing bond between Arlo and Spot. They share a couple of truly sweet moments longing for their families. If only there were more scenes such as those.
Mostly what you’ll remember from “The Good Dinosaur” is Arlo’s fearful shriek. He’s such a weak, ineffectual character that he’s hard to cheer for. We sympathize with his family that had to put up with him. These are not the feelings Pixar hoped to stir, and maybe if there hadn’t been a complete overhaul of the story and creative team, it would have been able to inspire more. Instead, “The Good Dinosaur” will probably be looked upon as one of Pixar’s lesser efforts.